A Star is Born… (Sort of)

Ken Ludwig’s Tony-Award-winning Lend Me a Tenor, a screwball comedy with plenty of farcical plot-twists and rip-roaring inuendo

John Addison and James Cottraill

Max, played by John Addison struggles with the singing bellhop, James Cottraill | Photo: English Theatre

In a world where bad news permeates the airwaves, Ken Ludwig’s award-winning play Lend Me a Tenor, playing at Vienna’s English Theatre through 21 December, is a welcome jolt of pure fun.

The non-stop action takes place in a hotel suite in Cleveland in 1934, on the occasion of the Cleveland Grand Opera hosting the world-renowned tenor Tito Merelli (Ralph Bogard) who is in town to perform his most brilliant role – that of Othello – for a charity event.

But when Merelli (alias “Il Stupendo”) arrives late to the theatre, one mishap after another leads to his taking too many tranquilisers, passing out and being left for dead by the opera company’s general manager Saunders (Mark Elstob) and his assistant Max (John Addison).

In a last ditch attempt to save the night – because, of course, the show must go on – Saunders convinces Max, an aspiring opera singer, to stand in for Merelli.

“Forget it. It wouldn’t work. They would spot me in ten seconds.”

“Oh, no they wouldn’t. … You could do it, Max. I know you could.”

“I don’t speak Italian. I can hardly speak English.”

“You don’t need to speak Italian, just sing it!”

Max does sing the part and succeeds at wow-ing the audience, which rewards him with standing ovations, thus turning the power dynamic between him and Saunders on its head.

The current production of Lend Me a Tenor is a marvellous romp: Directed by Philip Dart, artistic director of the acclaimed Channel Theatre Company in the U.K., the action is non-stop, like a 1940s screwball comedy, and the repartee between the characters reminiscent of The Philadelphia Story starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

“One day you are going to wake up in your bed, and you’re going to be a soprano,” warns Il Stupendo’s saucy Italian wife Maria (Simona Armstrong), irritated by his wandering eye. A farce of double entendres and innuendoes, the play has been produced both in London’s West End and on Broadway, receiving not only rave reviews, but nine Tony Award nominations, winning Best Actor and Best Director.

The Vienna’s English Theatre production is very physical, well acted and rip-roaringly funny. At the centre is Saunders, played brilliantly by Mark Elstob. A regular at Vienna’s English Theatre, Elstob’s delivery is flawless. “So where is Il Stupendo?” he is asked at one point.

“… lying in a gutter, stinking of Chianti and pepperoni,” Saunders quips. This is not a play to stand on political correctness. And the idea that the hefty, big-bellied Il Stupendo can be replaced by the thin Max just by putting on black face might strike some as, well, slightly offensive. But then again, it’s Othello, the Moor of Venice, and the tradition of black face dates back to Shakespeare.

And on hearing of Merelli’s supposed demise, Saunders rejoins, “He’s dead, …the selfish bastard.”

John Addison, who plays Max, does a masterful job of holding the stitches of the play together. With perfect comedic timing, he juggles the temperamental Il Stupendo and the hysterical Maria, while trying to keep admirers like Diana (Jessica Sherman), a troupe member of the Grand Cleveland Opera, at bay – because Il Stupendo has a thing for the ladies and Max is under strict orders to keep him away from women and the bottle, and to keep Merelli focused on the performance at hand.

“You are very cute, Max. Has anyone ever told you that before?” Diana purrs into Max’s ear.

“Sure, my mother. … My Aunt Harriet.”

“Anyone single?”

“My Uncle Bud.”

“You’re not going to let me see him, are you, Max?” She steps back, defeated.

With a cast of eight, the audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride, as the characters move back and forth and in and out of a set that has five – yes, five – doors. Maria, played by Simona Armstrong, is a standout among the women in the show, bravely taking on the double task of an Italian accent and a physically demanding role.

“You got girl! So don’t lie,” she tells Merelli, who refuses her advances because of pain from indigestion. “Three weeks nothing!” she shrieks. “Oh, I want to be nun! At least sometimes I have fun. I sing the hymns, I pluck the chicken…”

The cast succeeds at capturing the audience from the moment the lights go up, and this reviewer happily admits to not having laughed this hard during a performance all year. It’s good for the spirit.

All in all, Lend Me a Tenor could not have arrived in Vienna at a more apropos time – during this season of festivity, it’s a must-see, with a surprise ending that sends the audience away on a high.

Lend Me a Tenor
Mon.-Sat., 19:30
Through 21 Dec.
Vienna’s English Theatre
8., Josefsgasse 12

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