Though Ken Ludwig’s comedy “Lend Me a Tenor” was originally performed in London’s West End in 1986—and some of its 36-year-old humor and bawdy British comic sensibility might not be what we’re used to—it’s still a hilarious romp that really is “laugh out loud” funny (not just a chuckle or two). The high art of opera meets a Cleveland hotel suite with a zany cast of characters and barely comes out alive.
Eight intrepid actors take on physically challenging comic roles in International City Theatre’s (ICT) production, capably directed by Todd Nielsen to hit their marks. The set (designed by JR Luker and Destiny Manewal) is a 1934 hotel suite with two rooms and plenty of doors, which you can guess even before the play starts will be repeatedly opened and slammed shut.
A relatively tame first act builds up to intricate over-the-top antics in the second. Italian opera star Tito Merelli (Michael Scott Harris) has arrived in Cleveland to sing, accompanied by his wife Maria (Jade Santana), who is angry at him for eating two lunches so he can ogle at the waitress a second time—the kind of womanizing behavior Maria is getting fed up with—and Tito now feels too sick to perform.
Maria and Tito argue in English with thick Italian accents, which might be seen as stereotypical, but is funny in context. Santana is excellent at the spitfire Maria, maintaining both her accent and passion in her scenes. And Harris as Tito not only garners our sympathy with his oafishness (his second-act one-liners are especially hilarious), but can sing operatically, too.
In the first act, Tito teaches opera-house director’s assistant Max (a likable Nick Tubbs)—who has secret singing ambitions—how to loosen up and let his voice shine, which comes in handy later. Max is in love with Maggie (Bella Hicks), the director’s daughter, but she wants a fling with Tito before agreeing to marry Max.
And she’s not the only one. A hotel bellhop (a talented Matt Curtin), middle-aged board director Julia (Holly Jeanne), and ambitious and sexy opera singer Diana (Kailyn Leilani) also vie for Tito’s attention. Meanwhile, opera-house director Saunders (Barry Pearl) just wants the show to go on, entrusting meek and mild Max to make sure that happens.
Well, things don’t quite go as planned for the entire rest of the show, and to great farcical effect, especially in the second act. Thanks to game actors (gorgeously dressed in Kimberly DeShazo's costumes) willing to run about the stage, climb furniture, undress, slam doors, wear clown costumes and play dead, “Lend Me a Tenor” is chock full of slapstick humor while maintaining a coherent storyline.
Though the play relies on sexist stereotypes—and includes a structural oddity of retelling the entire story fast-paced after a whistle is blown, Benny Hill style—it’s still rare to laugh this much in the theatre, and that is certainly worth singing about.
International City Theatre’s “Lend Me a Tenor” continues through Nov. 6 at the Beverly O’Neill Theater, 330 E. Seaside Way, Long Beach, with shows Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $49 to $52 and can be purchased by calling (562) 436-4610 or visiting ICTLongBeach.org. Masks are required. Run time is two hours, with intermission.