IF YOU GO
What: Farce about an Italian opera singer getting ready for a big performance
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through Nov. 7
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.com
NAPLES — The first few minutes of a farce are critical, both to prime the audience for a night of outrageous comedy and to demonstrate that the director understands the extravagant overacting necessary to put on a good show. The Naples Players production of "Lend Me A Tenor" gets it right on both counts, opening with Rachel Duschl mouthing the words to something Italian and operatic with every ounce of energy she can muster.
Duschl is singing her little heart out - or would be, if she were making any noise. That comes seconds later, when she gets so overwrought as to slide right off her cushioned footstool onto the stage floor with an audible plop" and a shocked expression on her face. The audience laughs and there hasn't been one spoken word of dialogue. It is going to be a good night.
"Lend Me A Tenor," from American playwright Ken Ludwig, premiered on Broadway in March 1989; it ran for 476 performances and earned eight Tony nominations. The play, originally named "Opera Buffa," from the Italian for "comic opera," has since been translated into sixteen languages and is staple of the regional and community theater circuit.
"Tenor" is a classic farce - all mistaken identity, sexual innuendo, slamming doors, spiraling chaos and plot twists galore. There's a famous Italian tenor (with an upset stomach) scheduled to sing "Otello" in Cleveland, an autograph seeker hidden in the closet and an angry wife in the bedroom.
A double dose of tranquilizers later, everyone thinks the star is dead and sends the general manager's assistant on in his place. At one point, there are two Italian opera stars (one real, one fake) in blackface, two near-naked ladies, one enraged Italian wife, one obsessed bellhop and one sex-obsessed chairwoman of the Cleveland Opera Guild screaming, slamming doors and throwing bottles of champagne around.
Director Charles Kolmann displays a deft touch in keeping this madness on an even keel - although it tends to run away from the cast in places. A swift pace is a trademark for farce, but each line still needs enunciation. As delightful as the night was, I'd also encourage Kolmann to amp the action up even more and push his cast to really be over the top, like Les Prebble's off-kilter bellhop jumping over the furniture, cutting snide glances and slamming luggage.
Jim Corsica towers as Tito Merelli, or "Il Stupendo" to his fans. He gets the outrageous accent. He gets the silly little "ciaos" and "bellas" that make you think of sexy Italian boys riding scooters past the ruins of the Colosseum. And most of all, he gets the exaggerated overacting that is demanded in a farce.
Every scene should be as off the wall as the high point of the first act, where Corsica's opera singer is giving Robert Armstrong's character tips on being a singer. Corsica instructs him to breathe, hear the music, move a little - all very valid tips, by the way. What the actors wind up doing is running laps around the couch doing something that looks very much like the hokey-pokey while the audience is in stitches.
Most of the fast-pased second act is entirely built on a series of mistaken identities and sexual innuendo, but one scene, between Corsica and Julie Arensman (Diana), where he mistakes her opera singer for a practitioner of the world's oldest profession, is worth keeping an special eye out for - if only for the double-takes alone. And don't miss Carole Fenstermacher's shimmy-shimmy turn as a randy seductress in a slinky gold gown.
Continuing an unfortunate trend, Matt Flynn's sets are visually underwhelming. Technically, they're perfect; multiple doors for entry and egress, a closet for hiding starlets, daughters and autograph seekers, a perfect dividing wall in an interesting style and a gorgeous window at stage left. It just looks plain - nothing at all like the fancy hotel it is supposed to represent - and the cream color on the walls is boring. Even the wainscotting seems an afterthought. Then again, this is Cleveland. During the Depression. Maybe plain is what he was aiming for. Rick Foreman's costumes sizzle though, especially Arensman's gorgeous scarlet dress and come-hither shoes.
This "Tenor" doesn't need to borrow anything. It's got a great cast with nary a weak link to be seen, plenty of laughter and enough slamming doors for a Looney Tunes cartoon.