Fever Pitch

Doors slammed in such a life-and-death fashion that they sound like pistol shots. Ringing phones that never shut up and bosomy beauties who never give up. Determined defenders of the logic of outlandish antics. Hilarious characters who have no intention of being funny. Do-si-dos in the closet and interludes in the bedroom. Double-entendres and sight gags, mistaken identities and heroic impersonations, close calls and delectable scheming. As the song goes: "Don't you love farce?"

Playwright Ken Ludwig loves it, as does the Great White Way, which awarded his entertaining operatic romp, Lend Me a Tenor, the 1989 Tony Award for Best Play. Dramatist of a number of earlier works that have fared none too well (Sullivan and Gilbert, among them), Ludwig might very well be able to quit his day job as an entertainment lawyer (now there's subject matter to write about) if this enjoyable diversion is any indication of what he can do.

It's 1938, and all Cleveland is hot and bothered about the arrival of celebrated Italian opera star Tito Merelli, a charming rogue come to sing the lead in Otello. But much to the chagrin of the local blowhard impresario, "Il Stupendo" accidentally succumbs to too much wine and women -- and phenobarbital -- and dies in his luxurious hotel suite hours before the show.

At least that's what the bombastic boss thinks, and, afraid of box-office losses, he enlists his schlemiel of a gopher, Max, who has secret operatic aspirations, to sing in Merelli's place. Donning blackface and wig, sweet Max is a hit both onstage and off. He finds himself worshipped by, among others, Maggie, a lovestruck ingenue (which is okay with him, because he wants to marry her), and Diana, a sleep-my-way-to-the-Met soprano.

The Actors Workshop's lively production of Lend Me a Tenor begins with Kelly T. Campbell and Douglas Matens's gleamingly chic, tastefully black-and-white art deco set (from fur rugs to gilded wallpaper to a period Collier's on a tinted coffee table), and ends with director Larry Dachslager's amusing fast-forward, silent-movie pantomime of the entire evening's funny business, zipped through in two minutes flat. And in between there's some fine acting.

Brandon Adams is terrifically likable as unassuming Max, a schlump who's so nervous he loses weight just getting agitated, but who can nevertheless carry a tune -- and the day. David Rigg makes us care about larger-than-life Merelli by portraying him as a hotshot immigrant with passions as big as his heart. And with wringing hands, wide eyes and the pouty springiness of a virginal innocent bent on her first fling, Melissa Cox is enchanting as Maggie -- her syrupy, singsong little girlish voice is hard to get out of your head. With the exception of Larry W. Durbin, who plays the conniving, lordly impresario too cheerily, the supporting cast holds its own, especially Laura Lopez as Merelli's jealous, fiery wife, and Beverly Hutchison as the opera guild chairwoman who's as showy as her sequined dress.

A distant cousin of the Peter O'Toole and Mark Linn-Baker hit movie My Favorite Year, Ludwig's play is, just like all good farce, all in the timing. The timing and the tenor of the Actors Workshop's production of Lend Me a Tenor are just about right.


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