Opera Guild Chairwoman Julia (Melanie Wehrmacher) meets with Tito Merelli (Luke Davidson), the famous opera star – or is he? – in the Old Log Theatre’s production of Lend Me a Tenor. Photo courtesy of the Old Log Theatre.
Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor owes a lot to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. A send-up of the opera industry, this farce is firmly grounded in the door-slamming boudoir comedy of the 1910s and 1920s that was so delightfully captured in Wodehouse’s The Indiscretions of Archie and the Jeeves & Wooster novels that followed. Of course, you can’t find any instance of Archie or Bertie Wooster actually sleeping with anyone – however much the situation implied otherwise – but the debt remains.
As someone who grew up digesting Wodehouse’s novels and the immortal Jeeves and Wooster BBC adaptation, seeing Lend Me a Tenor for the first time was an introduction to this humor’s power in live theatre. Still, I wondered what I would think of the piece many years later, when I went to see the current production at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior. After all, the central plot conceit involves the use of blackface, identity deception, and (spoiler) sexcapades involving the above – at least two of which are decidedly out of step with current social mores. So how has Ken Ludwig’s piece weathered the years?
In the Old Log’s production, at least, the answer is “Fairly well, and still with lots of laughs.” The problematic use of blackface has been avoided simply by not using it onstage, relying on costume and wigs to convey the essential disguise. The moral implications of the slept-with-someone-different-than-I-thought point will be left for someone else to explore – but at the reviewed performance, no one seemed to be bothered by this content. Once those concerns are stripped away, what remains is a highly polished and very funny comedy.
The characters in Lend Me a Tenor are send-ups of various opera world stereotypes. The first trio includes the overboiling manager Saunders (James Michael Detmar), the quivering assistant Max (David Beukema), and Saunders’ adventure-seeking daughter Maggie (McKinnley Aitchison). The second, the Epicurean opera star Tito (Luke Davidson) and his fiery Italian wife Maria (Jaclyn Juola), and the ambitious and promiscuous soprano Diana (Elena Glass). Rounding things out is the fawning opera guild rep Julia (Melanie Wehrmacher) and intrusive Bellhop (Steven G. Frankenfield).
Subtle? It’s not that kind of play – this is a type of theatre splashed in broad strokes, and the well-cast actors grab their caricatures and dive onto the rollercoaster of a ride. If you’ve seen a lot of movies of a certain age, the setups and situations are not only familiar, but sprinkled with welcome hints, like seeing how director Eric Morris has several characters set themselves up for what they think will be their first meeting with Tito. Like the black and white film clips that precede the show, there are some things that are classics for a reason.
Lend Me a Tenor plays through February 16 at the Old Log Theatre in Excelsior, MN.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.