The Florida Repertory Theatre's 15th Anniversary Season began Friday night with Ken Ludwig's farce, Lend Me A Tenor. Chris Clavelli directs the season opener and leads a first-rate ensemble cast to a night full of laughter, heart, and cheer.
Lend Me A Tenor opened on Broadway in 1989, receiving five Tony Award nominations and winning two for Best Actor and Best Director. The story takes place in 1934 Cleveland, where a one-night-only performance of Verdi's Otello is set to open with the world's greatest tenor, Tito Merelli (David Breitbarth), in the title role. When Merelli and his wife, Maria (Carrie Lund), arrive on the scene a chain-reaction of chaos ensues. Mistaken identities, double entendres, slamming doors, and farcical plot twists all contribute to creating a night the Cleveland Grand Opera will never forget.
The play centers on the relationship between the famous Merelli and an aspiring young singer, Max (Michael Satow). What sets this particular comedy apart from the typical over the top farce-genre is its moments of sincerity. Breitbarth and Satow are so believable that you don't doubt for a second that the larger than life opera star could truly be friends with the uptight and awkward singer in training. Thanks to Breitbarth's abundant charm you never see Merelli as a raving egomaniac, but rather a calmly confident talent whom you can't help but love. Satow also excels at creating a character that everyone can root for. His earnest and star-struck portrayal of Max is so endearing that you truly feel for him when the world of the play comes crashing down around him. Both Breitbarth and Satow create such a sweet and honest on-stage friendship that you become immediately invested in their story. It's this genuine relationship engineered by great acting and solid direction that sets the tone for the show.
It's obvious within the first 30 minutes of the play, once almost all of the characters have been introduced, that Clavelli knows how to direct a farce. All too often you see farces with actors creating inauthentic characters simply performing to make the audience laugh. In this production however, every character has a basis in reality. Watching these realistic characters react to heightened and sometimes absurd situations is what creates the comedy and makes us laugh. Congrats to Mr. Clavelli, because that's how it should be done.
Craig Bockhorn brings plenty of humor as Saunders, the General Manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera. Bockhorn, who audiences may remember from last season's God of Carnage, is well suited as the desperate, overly tense, put-upon Saunders. If you can imagine a hybrid of both Nathan Lane and Zero Mostel's comedic sensibilities then you have come up with Bockhorn's pitch perfect performance.
Rounding out the cast is a superb group of supporting players. Carrie Lund as Merelli's hot-tempered jealous wife is a joy to watch. Having seen Lund in a number of roles on the Florida Rep stage, this one is tops. Lindsay Clemmons, Kate Hampton Jason Parrish, and Kate Young all play characters infatuated with Merelli's charm, talent, and power. Clemmons portrays the young ingénue, Maggie, and proves to have a real knack for the authentic 1930s style of comedy. Hampton's Diana also provides lots of laughs as the lustful, ladder-climbing soprano with the husky speaking voice. Parrish is a riot as the singing bellhop who doesn't quite know his place; watch for a brilliant exit in the first act, which will undoubtedly get applause at every performance as it did on opening night. Lastly, Young brings a hilarious Angela Lansbury-esque quality to the role of Julia, creating an always-loveable albeit completely nutty chairwoman of the opera guild.
The Scenic design by Jim Hunter is an impressively large two-room suite that spans the width of the stage, boasting 6 doors perfect for fast paced madcap comedy. Todd O. Wren, Lighting Designer, works overtime to make Hunter's unbelievably bold purple, pink, and gold set look expensive and refined. The two work well together creating a polished visual feast for the eyes, instead of a gaudy pre-teen girl's fantasy of luxury; which it easily could have been.