Review: Lend Me a Tenor

By Wendy Rosenfield

for the Inquirer

To say Ken Ludwig’s 1986 farce Lend Me a Tenor is enjoying something of a resurgence is to ignore its ongoing popularity. It’s one of the most-produced contemporary farces, and its 2010 Broadway revival spawned a flurry of regional activity. Bud Martin, who directed Act II Playhouse’s entry last season, found it so nice he decided to mount it twice, importing much of that cast for Delaware Theatre Company’s current production.

And why not? Tony Braithwaite has proved his mettle on area stages as a farceur extraordinaire, with lightning timing and a performance style loose enough to allow for ad libbing during inevitable bedding/running/door-slamming mishaps. Reprising his role as Henry Saunders, the Cleveland Opera’s general manager, he’s a maestro, directing the action through its mayhem: it’s 1934 and the famed Italian tenor Tito Merelli (John Plumpis) overdoses on phenobarbitol after his wife Maria (Tracie Higgins) leaves him, and just before a performance of Verdi’s Otello. Saunders must find a substitute fast, and his assistant Max (Jonathan Silver, an able, nimble match for Braithwaite), who also happens to be dating Saunders’ daughter--after all, what’s a farce without sexual misconduct--is the unlikely man to masquerade as the murderous Moor. 

Returning also are Eileen Cella as ingenue Maggie Saunders, and Howie Brown, as an intrusive bellhop and opera aspirant. Marcia Hepps’ overwrought Aunt Julia and Sarah Litzinger’s overheated soprano Diana complete the ensemble, which works as this sort of ensemble should: fast and furious. Assisted by Dirk Durossette’s sumptuous set design, bedecked with damask sheets, art deco botanical panels and robin’s egg Tiffany design elements, and Alisa Kleckner’s gorgeous costumes--a cobalt blue silk evening dress, amethyst bias-cut gown, deep-red tartan wool pants--add visual elegance to all the zaniness.

So again, why not? The year Tenor debuted was also the year Franco Zeffirelli released his film Otello, featuring a “blacked up” Placido Domingo continuing the long tradition of that role performed by artificially darkened white men. Tenor’s principal visual gag is the blackface and afro wig that allow Max to impersonate Tito onstage. It may be historically accurate (well, not the wig), and a tradition that still continues today, but it’s also a painful reminder of a legacy of institutional racism, and makes a true farce of attempts at audience diversity. Here’s hoping this show’s present resurgence also signals its final curtain call.

 

Lend Me a Tenor

Playing at: Delaware Theatre Company, 200 Water St., Wilmington, Del. Through Sun., Nov. 3. Tickets: $35 to $50. Information: 302-594-1100 or www.DelawareTheatre.org

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