Bay Street Theatre’s 2013 Mainstage Season opened on June 1 with a wacky production of Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor. A meticulously controlled chaos unfolds from the moment Noah Plomgren bursts onstage as the continuously panicked assistant/amateur opera singer Max and doesn’t let up once. When Italian tenor virtuoso Tito Merelli (Roland Rusinek) refuses to rehearse following a fallout with his wife Maria (Judy Blazer) and has a few too many sleeping pills with his wine, opera director Saunders (Steve Rosen) forces Max to impersonate the larger-than-life star and perform as the title role in Othello, thinking Tito has died. What follows is pitch-perfect farce that audiences will enjoy, especially if they’ve come across these melodramatic artistic types before; by show’s end, it’s very clear that we’ve just witnessed a comic opera (sans singing, mostly) of these characters’ own design, even if they don’t realize it themselves.
Farce can fly off the rails if the pacing lags or the characters don’t match the energy of the script. In the capable hands of director Don Stephenson, all of the actors in the play are clearly in sync with one another and are all in on the joke (without resorting to broad camp). Rosen absolutely commands the stage as the neurotic Saunders, making sure his character is always on the brink of either fainting or killing someone. Plomgren, onstage for most of the show, does a great job taking Max from one ridiculous situation to another, while Rusinek takes what could have been a more one-note plot device character and gives Tito real warmth and heart without forgetting that he’s “Il Stupendo.”
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent: Betsy DiLellio plays the seemingly demure, actually wild Maggie with the face of an ingénue and the personality of a college girl on spring break. Donna English is hilarious as the insecure leading lady Diana, especially when attempting to seduce Tito. Nancy Johnston nails Julia, the all-too-familiar busybody who thinks she’s helping while actually making things much worse. Blazer is fiery as Maria, her exaggerated accent the cause for many laughs. Scott Cote’s obnoxious Bellhop doesn’t miss a beat, with the audience in stitches every time he shows up at just the wrong moment. And Plomgren and Rusinek do a wonderful job singing throughout, showcasing very legitimate talent in an evening of outrageousness.
The lovely production design complements the performances. Set in a hotel suite, Ken Goldstein gives the scene a soft, creamy color that is aesthetically pleasing. Goldstein clearly understands the importance of a set in a farce, with doors slamming, characters on all sorts of different positions on couches, beds and chairs and props flying all over the place. Wade Laboissonniere’s costumes are gorgeous, and Max’s Othello costume looks appropriately unwieldy. It wouldn’t be fair to spoil Max’s costume change at the end of Act I, but suffice it to say there will be plenty of gleeful laughs and gasps.
Although the second act is rife with (good-natured) sexual hijinks, the show is basically appropriate for all ages, since the comedy is big and the humor often physical. The combination of Ludwig’s script, Stephenson’s direction, the actors’ tremendous work and the production design makes the production feel like a fully-orchestrated musical comedy, which can be a treat for audiences who are tired of always having to wear their intellectual thinking caps to the theatre.
Lend Me a Tenor is a strong start to Bay Street Theatre’s summer season. The play runs through June 23, followed by “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” a two-man genre-skewering comedy written by the late, great Northport-raised Charles Ludlam, July 2–28. The season closes out with the Stephen Sondheim classic “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” August 6–September 1. Subscriptions are available for all three Mainstage productions; for more information, go to baystreet.org or call the Box Office at 631-725-9500. Discounted tickets are available for students, seniors and servicemen.