Northampton Press

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Theater Review: Bank on the 'Tenor' of comedy at PSF

Wednesday, July 16, 2014 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival production of "Lend Me A Tenor" has all the ingredients for side-splitting laughter: A mistaken-identity plot, five slamming doors right out of a Feydeau farce, characters silly beyond belief, and split-second timing.

Jim Helsinger directs a cast of PSF "all-stars," missing no opportunity to mine the play's laugh lines.

PSF's "Lend Me A Tenor" generates laughter of operatic proportions.

The Ken Ludwig comedy continues through Aug. 3, Main Stage, Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, DeSales University, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley.

The story takes place in 1934 in a hotel suite when Cleveland Opera Company guest artist, renowned tenor Tito Merelli (Perry Ojeda), is to play the lead in Verdi's "Otello." When Merelli takes ill, company manager Saunders (Carl N. Wallnau) enlists his assistant Max (Jacob Dresch) to fill in.

Maggie (Deanna Gibson), opera guild chairperson Julia (Susan Riley Stevens), soprano Diana (Eleanor Handley) and a bellhop (Anthony Lawton) all seek Merelli's autograph (and more), much to the chagrin of Merelli's wife Maria (Suzanne O'Donnell).

The production is rife with physical comedy, double entendre and sight gas. The Helsinger touch, which has brought gales of laughter to previous PSF plays, is again in effect.

PSF's "Tenor" has a second-act doppelganger that must be seen to be believed.

The play has eight superb actors.

Gibson, who has wonderful comedic chops, is beguilingly spastic in her body language, fluttery arms and legs akimbo, with a giggly, sunny countenance, as Merelli's smitten fan.

Handley is very droll, yet nervously needy, rendering her performance all the more funny as the put-upon diva who's duped.

Riley Stevens evokes a severe intensity, creating a haughty demeanor for her character that's hilarious.

O'Donnell conveys a flabbergasted yet knowing control over Merelli, whose power seems to vaporize in her pugnacious presence.

Lawton is peerless as an obsessed fan, bringing a frenetic foppery to the proceedings.

Wallnau is a master of timing, with his slow burn a thing to behold. He folds his body like a jackknife, then springs into indignation. His befuddlement, double takes and exasperation par excellence are laugh-out-loud funny.

Dresch has an angularity to his body and a timidity that recalls the great Wally Cox.

Ojeda brings the churlish charm of a difficult movie, or in this case, opera star to his role. His gestures, stage presence and facial expressions are larger than life, and devastatingly funny.

Dresch and Ojeda add to the show's verisimilitude in fine voice for the duet, "Dio, che nell'alma infondere" from Verdi's "Don Carlo," and in excerpts from other operas, thanks in part to Vocal Coach J. Bennett Durham and Dialect Coach Lynne Innerst, seamlessly rendered by Sound Designer Matthew Given.

Scenic Designer Bob Phillips' handsome set in Four Seasons hotel sand tones is detailed down to Lighting Designer Thom Weaver's shadows on the window curtains.

Costume Designer Amy Best's women's costumes are lovely, especially a yellow gown worn by Gibson, two sleek numbers on Handley and a silver sheath for Riley Stevens, the latter outfit described as looking like "the Chrysler Building." The Otello costume resembles a pepper mill.

You can bank on PSF's "Lend Me A Tenor." It's another Helsinger comedic tour de farce. Don't miss it.