The Last Laugh

Wilde Playhouse lends Tucson a hilarious farce in the venue's next-to-last production

For a farce first presented in 1986 that picked up a pair of Tonys in 1989, Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor is surprisingly old-fashioned.

True, there are a couple of very funny scenes crammed with innocently delivered sexual double entendres, but they're no racier than what Tony Randall and Rock Hudson were getting away with out of Doris Day's earshot 40 years ago. And there's not a single expletive in the script that you couldn't say on FCC-regulated TV; until nearly the end, the dirtiest four-letter word you'll hear is "crud."

But Ludwig proves there's a lot of lusty life left in an old-fashioned sex farce, especially when it's presented with the superb timing of the current production at Wilde Playhouse.

Set in a Cleveland hotel suite in 1934, the play revolves around the hapless Max, a young amateur tenor serving as factotum to Henry Saunders, the arrogant manager of the local opera company. For a special one-time performance of Verdi's Otello, Saunders has engaged for the title role the world-famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli, known as "Il Stupendo." Max's job is to keep Merelli away from booze and women long enough for him to complete the performance.

But on the day of the show, Merelli arrives with severe gastric distress, only part of which is attributable to his Italian harridan of a wife, Maria, who has tagged along to keep an eye on him. Through a complicated series of misunderstandings, Saunders and Max believe Merelli has committed suicide in the suite. To avert a box-office disaster, Max swabs himself in blackface, dons Merelli's Otello costume (he happens to travel with two) and replaces Merelli on stage, hoping neither the audience nor his co-star will notice.

Of course, Merelli isn't dead at all, and the second act abounds with all the requisite elements of classic sex farce: mistaken identities, compromising positions, slamming doors, women in their underwear hiding in closets.

Through it all, Max has to contend with his star-struck fiancée, Maggie; a star-struck bellhop; the star-struck head of the opera board, Julia; and lead soprano Diana, who hopes through Tito to sleep her way to the Met. Along the way are a few sly references to the psychological themes of Verdi's Otello/Shakespeare's Othello, but you're better off not straining to make the connections.

There's nothing subtle about this script to begin with; the Italians, in particular, are so stereotypical that you expect the nauseated Tito to complain "That's-a some spicy meatball" and reach for the Alka-Seltzer. Director Michelle Davis, who took over early on from Dana Cianciotto, who moved to Phoenix, draws intentionally over-the-top performances from almost all the actors, except boy-next-door Nicholas Cianciotto as the relatively sane Max. (Dana Cianciotto cast her brother, Nicholas, and her father, Nick, in the play, but this bit of nepotism pays off with strong performances from both.)

The good thing about all this high-pitched hamminess is that Davis has avoided the stiffness that has afflicted some Wilde Playhouse actors in the past. The less-good thing is that the acting often seems a bit too broad for this narrow little room.

Nicholas Cianciotto is very appealing as Max, although he is in no way a convincing Verdi tenor, something he has a chance to demonstrate in an impromptu lesson from Tito (it's supposed to be a duet, but Nick Cianciotto as Tito doesn't participate). This adds sharpness to the idea that an opera audience would go wild because they thought they were seeing a superstar, no matter what they actually heard, and sales figures for certain crossover CDs support this notion. Still, I think playwright Ludwig assumes that Max really can sing, so the timid vocalizing here is a bit of a disappointment.

Nick Cianciotto downplays Tito's egomania and makes the Italian tenor an unexpectedly sympathetic figure. He would exude elegant middle-aged European sensuality if it weren't for the offstage vomiting. Libby Paguaga as Maggie is especially good in her giddy fangirl moments. The engagingly mercurial Kenton Jones hams it up shamelessly as Saunders; this is a performance that really needs more space to bounce around in. Jones looks very much like Tucson Symphony conductor George Hanson, except that Hanson doesn't wave his arms so much.

In the smaller roles, Martie van der Voort cuts a sexy figure as Julia, who might otherwise be merely a dotty dowager; Cari Feller is sly as the soprano; Allison Rose has the combative Italian female stereotype honed to perfection; and Shaun Cullen is petulantly effective as the bellhop who would be an opera star (he reminds me of a waiter I once encountered while dining in Manhattan with a Metropolitan Opera guest conductor; being a tenor, the waiter had no idea who the conductor was until his identity slipped out, but then he lingered over-attentively until the conductor generously invited him to come by the Met for an audition).

In June, Wilde Playhouse will turn from farce to the ultra-serious Laramie Project before closing its doors for good. Go now to Lend Me a Tenor, and enjoy Wilde's last laugh.

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