Ken Ludwig's 1986 farce, Lend Me a Tenor, through July 31, 2011, at Concannon Vineyard, is the refreshing dessert to this summer's Livermore Shakespeare Festival's heavy entrée, Macbeth. Like most desserts, Ludwig's ingredients sit proudly on the plate, exposed for all to see.
For example, we learn almost immediately that nebishy Max (Stephen Muterspaugh), who grovels as a gopher for the circa-1934 Cleveland Grand Opera Company and is in love with his employer's daughter, Maggie (Casi Maggio), aspires to be an opera singer himself. As played by Muterspaugh, it would be easier for us to imagine Pavarotti as a Kentucky Derby jockey. Nor can we picture how milquetoast Max will fulfill the task assigned to him by his blustery boss, Henry Saunders (Jesse Caldwell). Max's mission? To keep Il Stupendo, as the great tenor Tito Merelli (Miles Gaston Villanueva) is known to his legions of fans, from drinking and womanizing his way through the scant 24 or so hours he will be in Cleveland for a one-night fundraising performance of Verdi's Otello.
When Merelli finally arrives with his terrifying Italian bombshell of a wife, Maria (Molly Kruse), and announces that he doesn't need a rehearsal or even to try on his costume because he has brought his own (indeed, that he always travels with two), well, what else do you need to know? He will get drunk, his bed will crawl with women and there's only one other person on the stage who aspires to get into his costume, if not his pants.
Jesse Caldwell and Stephen Muterspaugh as Saunders and Max
Still, despite its premeditated predictability, Tenor is a great deal of fun, and the fast-paced direction by Leslie Martinson helps the cast of Livermore Shakes sell their characters so well, we forget they're cartoons. We care about these goof balls, we want Max and Maggie to get together, we even want Tito and Maria to find peace, or at least the Italian version of détente.
Like Moon Over Buffalo, which premiered a decade after Tenor and was recently produced by Bus Barn Stage Company in Los Altos, this physical comedy with lots of slamming doors (there are six) takes the audience behind the scenes of an arcane corner of the performing-arts world. Buffalo found humor in the failed hopes and dreams of an aging husband-and-wife acting team, who were once so full of promise but are now reduced to doing Cyrano and Private Lives in repertory for the rubes in upstate New York.
Stephen Muterspaugh and Miles Gaston Villanueva as Max and Tito
Tenor is equally condescending about anything beyond the borough of Manhattan. The manager of the company, Saunders, is depicted as a scheming, self-absorbed windbag, who must suffer the small-minded, self-importance of Julia Leverett (Monica Cappuccini), the chairwoman of the local Opera Guild, which pays the pathetic man's salary. In New York, none of these people would be worth sneering at, but in Cleveland, they're under the illusion that they're a big deal. All in good fun, to be sure, but Ludwig's Eastern-establishment snobbery gets tiresome pretty quickly.
Less judgmental, and thus more interesting, is Ludwig's appreciation of the perils of celebrity. His Tito, who's at once imperious and vulnerable in the hands of Villanueva, is one of those famous people everyone wants a piece of. Type-A's like Saunders want to profit off him, while the bellhop (Matt Ballin) doggedly stalks him for an autograph or photo.
Kathryn Zdan and Miles Gaston Villanueva as Diana and Tito
Women from Maggie to Julia to Diana (Kathryn Zdan) want Tito for their own reasons. For Maggie, he's the promise of old-fashioned romance, the embodiment of the passion she can't see in sweet, boring Max, whose puppy-dog desire to please comes off as spinelessness. For Diana, the opera company's Desdemona, she's so aggressive in her desire to get Tito to put in a good word for her with the bigwigs in New York that the star mistakes her for a hooker. In Tenor, Ludwig paints Diana as the play's lone bad apple, but clearly she's got the stuff to make it in the big one.
Lend Me a Tenor runs through July 31, 2011, at Concannon Vineyard in Livermore. For tickets and information visit livermoreshakes.org.
All photos: Kenneth Alexander