by Gail M. Burns
One of my happiest farcical memories is of seeing Ken Ludwig’s hilarious 1986 opus Lend Me a Tenor at Oldcastle way back when they were performing in the Everett Mansion on the campus of what is now Southern Vermont College. So I was thrilled that they would be the company to introduce me to Ludwig’s sequel, A Comedy of Tenors, written a full quarter century after the original. Christine Decker has deftly directed this laugh riot which brings many of the central characters from the earlier play together again.
Once again Henry Saunders (Richard Howe) has trouble with tenors. He is trying to stage an epic concert with three of them – operatic Italian megastar Tito Merelli (Peter Langstaff), young American star on the rise Carlo Nucci (Ethan Botwick), and Swedish tenor Jussi Björling – in Paris in 1936. Not only do Saunders and his assistant and son-in-law Max (Max Arnaud) have Tito’s enormous ego to deal with, but on the day of the concert Björling has to hurry home because his mother died. No worries, Max, also an aspiring tenor, will step in.
All is well again until the Merellis arrive – Tito, wife Maria (Yvonne Perry), and 25-year-old daughter Mimi (Ana Anderson). Maria knows, but Tito doesn’t, that Mimi is madly in love with Carlo Nucci, who Tito already despises and sees as a threat to his supremacy as the world’s top tenor. When Mimi and Carlo are nearly discovered in flagrante delicto Maria helps Carlo dress quickly to escape. Tito sees them together, assumes the worst and VOILA a farce erupts.
Act II introduces the characters of Beppo (Langstaff), a garrulous Venetian bellhop who just happens to be a magnificent tenor AND a dead-ringer for Tito; and Tito’s former lover, the renowned soprano Tatiana Racón (Renata Eastlick). Two lusty ladies, two bedrooms in the hotel suite, and, apparently, two Tito’s makes for merry mayhem as tenors accept and refuse participation in Saunders’ concert and the minutes tick down to curtain time.
Ludwig knows opera, he knows Shakespeare, and he knows how to construct an air-tight farce. He studied with Leonard Berstein at Harvard (listen for the Bernstein reference in this play) and often bases his original works on Shakespearean plot. Here the parallel is obviously to the comedy referenced in the title – The Comedy of Errors – which also deals with the confusion caused by identical characters.
Langstaff provides a solid center around which all this absurdity whirls. While he is portraying two men with large personalities, Langstaff’s performance is not too big for its britches. His aging Tito is genuinely anguished that his beloved Maria may be cheating on him, and righteously angered when Carlo threatens not only his standing in the opera world but the sanctity of his family. His Beppo is winsome and playful, full of wonder at the women, food, and career opportunities that seem to have suddenly landed in his lap.
As the supposedly sane one in the mix, Arnaud’s Max is also quite distracted by the fact that back in Cleveland his wife Maggie, Saunders’ daughter, is expecting their first child at any minute. A tall man, Arnaud is physically adept and manages to do some gasp-inducing near-pratfalls a al Dick Van Dyke. Conversely, Botwick is slight and nimble. He has done the fight choreography for this production to good comic effect.
In a memorable moment, Arnaud, Botwick and Langstaff actually sing an operatic trio together, accompanied by a recorded orchestra. I was sure that they would lip synch, but no, they took a deep breath and belted it out and while I was not fooled into believing they were world class tenors they all sing very well and I was completely enthralled by their exuberant rendition of Verdi’s Brindisi (drinking song) from La Traviata.
Yvonne Perry is the beautiful, fiery Maria. Ludwig has given all three of his women strong senses of self and healthy sexual appetites. Maria stands up to Tito and tells him exactly what she wants, and doesn’t want, at all times. Anderson is a slinky little minx as Tito and Maria’s daughter Mimi – named after the central character in Puccini’s La Boheme, of course. Her lust, er, love for Carlo is openly expressed, as is her ambition to make it as an actor.
Eastlick is nothing short of dynamic as the Russian diva Tatiana Racón. She doesn’t appear until well into the second act, but once she’s there you will forget everyone else on the stage and only have eyes for her. She has true star power.
A long-time Oldcastle stalwart, Howe seemed adrift without a paddle at the performance I attended. He is usually a most reliable performer, and I hope what I witnessed was just one of those inevitable and infuriating bad days.
At the performance I attended Carl Sprague’s set got its own round of applause when it was first revealed. Portraying a Parisian hotel suite heavy on the red and gold, Sprague has provided all the doors, balcony, steps, and furnishings for a rip-roaring farce. Roy Hamlin has done an excellent job with the props – lacy underthings pop up in the strangest places and a sumptuous buffet of mostly fake food (except for one talkative tongue) graces a table down stage right. Ursula McCarty’s costumes are clever and flashy. Langstaff transforms from Tito to Beppo and back with simple and subtle swaps of vests and cummerbunds.
A Comedy of Tenors is Ludwig and Oldcastle at their best. While there are a few racy moments, there is no reason the whole family can’t come along and end their summer with a big laugh. Lord knows, this summer we all need all the laughter we can get!
Oldcastle Theatre Company presents A Comedy of Tenors by Ken Ludwig, directed by Christine Decker, runs August 18-September 3, 2017. Set design by Carl Sprague, costume and prop design by Ursula McCarty and Roy Hamlin, lighting design by Scott Cally, sound design by Cory Wheat, stage manager Gary Allan Poe. CAST: Richard Howe as Henry Saunders, Max Arnaud as Max, Yvonne Perry as Maria Merelli, Peter Langstaff as Tito Merelli and Beppo, Ana Anderson as Mimi Merelli, Ethan Botwick as Carlo Nucci, Renata Eastlick as Tatiana Racón, Carl Sprague as the Voice of Jacques.
Oldcastle Theatre is located at 331 Main Street (Rt. 9) in Bennington, VT. The show runs two hours with one intermission and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For further information or reservations contact Oldcastle through their website oldcastletheatre.org or call 802-447-0564.