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On a High Note

Opera Buffoonery Parades Across Paragon's Boards

(From Left) Lisa Geyer, Todd Cunningham, and Gail Shinaberry in Paragon Theatre's Lend Me A Tenor

By John Barry | Posted 6/19/2002

Lend Me a Tenor

Ken Ludwig

You may have read about Luciano Pavarotti's no-show at the Metropolitan Opera last month. Fans who paid up to $1,875 per ticket learned the hard way that if the fat man doesn't feel like singing at his own farewell gala, then the opera's over--unless someone finds a last-minute stand-in. And Pavarotti learned a lesson himself: When the stand-in holds his own only two rehearsals, people start wondering whether the original tenor was such a hot item to begin with.

Art imitates life in Ken Ludwig's 1989 Broadway hit Lend Me a Tenor, currently running at the Paragon Theatre. World-renowned Italian tenor Tito Merelli (Todd Cunningham) arrives with his wife, Maria (Maria-Helena Diaz), in Cleveland, where he'll grace this cultural backwater (sorry, Drew) with a performance of Verdi's Otello. Tito is a hot-blooded Italiano; his wife is a well-endowed Mama Lucia who has her arms full fighting off opera groupies and keeping her whipped husband in line. Members of the American Italian Anti-Defamation League should stay away: Maria and Tito have accents coming-a straight-a outta de late-night mozzarella commercial.

Tito arrives fashionably late, looking like he just swallowed a bad meatball. That leaves the Cleveland Opera's impresario, Saunders (Herman Kemper), desperate to find a way for the show to go on. Max (Rusty Stone), Saunders' groveling gofer, tries to assuage Tito's ailments with phenobarbital, which, mixed with wine and a subsequent marital spat, has a predictably disastrous effect on the famous tenor's ability to belt out Verdi. So Saunders' eyes fall on Max, who isn't exactly the chesty tenor type but who can sing the hell out of Otello. Max wants to seize the moment, and possibly impress his girlfriend. Saunders wants to save face. And with a little blackface, who can tell the difference between a 6-foot-5 Italian tenor and a 5-foot-8 wimp who's bald as a cue ball? In Cleveland, anything is possible.

Six doors, two rooms, eight characters, and one case of mistaken identity is a somewhat mathematical prescription for farce, but it's tried and true. Ludwig's extended exposition is a bit problematic, though. We have to learn who's who, but until things get physical, things drag. The play gets jump-started with a jolt of commedia dell'arte by Robin Felix, who plays a moon-faced, overweight bellhop to hilarious effect. Cunningham is physically perfect for the role of Tito: His hulking, slumped presence invites characters around him to coddle him, berate him, and seduce him. Then the nondescript Max comes alive as he transforms into a vicarious Tito. And so on: The doors start slamming and opening, as people rush out of closets and bathrooms and kitchens and hallways. By the second act, the actors seem a little more comfortable and begin improvising a bit within their archetypal roles. Director Roy Hammond's pacing starts out a bit slow, but when it picks up it picks up quick, ending with a final ensemble whirligig as the Paragon players turn a situation comedy into a full-scale farce.

These guys deserve a little extra credit. The Paragon has settled the West Bank of Baltimore's cultural district by taking over an empty movie house on West 25th Street. Sure, you take what you can get, and it's great for the neighborhood; on the other hand, cavernous abandoned theaters make it difficult to develop a rapport with any audience. But that's not a sympathy vote: Although they could do better in another venue, the Paragon company deserves a tip o' the hat for a solid, high-spirited performance in this one.

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