IF YOU GO
What: Italian opera star Tito Merelli drops dead before a performance in 1934 Cleveland (or does he?)
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday & Sundays through Nov. 17
Where: 2267 1st Street, Fort Myers
Cost: $40 & $45
Information: (239) 332-4488, floridarep.org
Something else: Free parking across the street
On the Web: More theater news at The Stage Door blog
FORT MYERS — Picture it. Cleveland. 1934. One thousand of the city's cognoscenti have gathered in white tie and tails for Verdi's "Otello," starring Italian tenor Tito Merelli. Only, Tito is … kind of … dead? Quick. Someone "Lend Me A Tenor!" Florida Repertory Theatre does just that. No charge for the laughs.
Chris Clavelli directs Ken Ludwig's operatic farce with a steady, if not spectacular hand. His "Tenor" hits the right notes in the right places, rises at the arias and bellows at the crescendos. A professional cast delivers the silliness with obvious glee. Doors slam, identities are mistaken and madcap chases ensue. Laughs come easily - and loudly (thank you, patron in G8).
Yet, for all the fun, the show never feels like it achieves maximum velocity. True, "Tenor" keeps the audience in a jolly, happy place; audiences want to laugh, like to laugh - and the show offers a ton of fun. But the show fights to reach a comedy crest that forces the cast to hold for laughter. As good as it is, it never leaves the crowd in a state of howling, wheezing, stomp on the floor, tears in the eyes laugh-gasms.
Clavelli's direction, while crisp and efficient, can also be a touch mechanical. Farce rewards wild invention - even insanity - and the on-stage action never quite gets there. Physical comedy stops at a chaste second base instead of going for the home run and chase scenes end too quickly, as if the show had a train to catch.
The express train analogy - fast and loud - could characterize much of "Tenor." In his hurry to get the big, gaudy farce off the ground, Clavelli never really grounds his characters. They are all just quirks (loud, mousy, girlish, bossy) lifted right to their extremes. Even the extravagant accents tend to wander the continent like bored backpackers with a Eurorail pass. The resulting fireworks are often entertaining - but when the comedy dial starts at 10, the performers have nowhere else to go.
True over-the-top moments get the biggest laughs. Craig Bockhorn takes his furious opera house manager to outrageous heights despite stumbling over lines on opening night. One of the night's best scenes comes after he discovers the "dead" opera star lying comatose in bed. Bockhorn flies into a rage, cursing the Italian, manhandling the body, leaping across the couch in a fit of pique and defying all efforts of his poor assistant to stop him.
Deliciously timid assistant Max (Michael Satow) gives real heart and genuine charm to his harried character. His horrified, terrified, amazed and terrorized expressions make the play. He also proves it possible to lift (and move) a bottle of chianti using just a pair of lips (his) in the play's rowdiest, bring-down-the-house scene.
David Breitbarth (Il Stupendo Tito Merelli) shares wonderful chemistry with Satow; their touching scenes give the show depth. Though neither came into the show with singing experience, a soaring operatic duet as the maestro teaches the novice serves up both brilliant comedy and heart-warming smiles. Credit music supervisor Justin P. Cowan for the vocal coaching.
Veteran Carrie Lund blasts through every door on stage with haughty fierceness (and far too much fun) as diva Maria Merelli. An Italian accent as thick as salami scatters silly girls, opera starlets and all else in her wake. Jason Parrish delivers coffee, champagne, luggage and trouble as a meddlesome bellhop; watch for the merry chase sequence broken by a photo op!
A vivid lavender and magenta Art Deco set (divided into a hotel suite) recalls the splendor of the Jazz Age gone slightly to seed. Jim Hunter allows bevelled mirrors decorate the stage; a crystal chandelier tinkles overhead. Enormous columns lend height and feature gorgeous scrollwork. Better still, Todd O. Wren has the columns light up when young Maggie (Lindsay Clemmons) hears bells upon her true love's kiss. If there's an issue, the intense coloring can - under the fluorescent stage lights - resemble something of a bordello; the bold patterns threaten to overwhelm many of the costumes.
Roberta Malcolm scores with a glittering, ghastly Chrysler Building-inspired design (including a bedazzled 12-inch headpiece) for society dame Julia (Kate Young). It is the ugliest - and most hilarious - thing on the stage. Other frocks look plain (a blue ball gown) or made in a hurry (a yellow confection that doesn't quite communicate a sexpot soprano's "other talents").
I've grown to appreciate the details of production - and sound designer Kate Smith offers delights. Carillon bells sing during Max and Maggie's swooning kiss, dishes crash in an off-stage kitchenette and a mad-frenzy of camera flashes erupt during the bellboy brawl. I do wish her doors had slammed louder.
"Lend Me A Tenor" has laughs. It has a lot of them. Professional actors whip through silly stunts and ludicrous lines with glee. The show could stand polishing, pruning and tweaking, but true love, screaming Italian divas, slamming doors and dead opera stars make for a pretty swell time.
"Otello," "Othello" or mint chocolate chip? Email me, email@example.com. Email me, firstname.lastname@example.org, find me on Twitter at @napleschris or read my Stage Door theater blog. You can also sign up to receive the Stage Door blog via email.