Regional Reviews: Phoenix
While Ludwig's play is filled with well-constructed comical moments, it's also a play that uses two white actors in black face to achieve many of those laughs. This is something that caused a bit of an uproar on social media last season when two theatres in town produced the play, due to the very un-politically correct nature of that plot device. Fortunately, Fountain Hills' Artistic Director Peter J. Hill, who also directs this production, knew he was in for a possible problem, so he did what he needed to dohe rewrote parts of the script and lyrics to eliminate the need for blackface, submitted the changes to the company that licenses this musical, and had his changes approved.
It's 1934 and Tito Morelli, world famous tenor, has been booked to perform Pagliacci at the Cleveland Opera Company. After accidentally receiving a double dose of tranquilizers and drinking too much wine, Tito passes out and is believed to be dead by Max, the nervous assistant to the opera company's general manager, Saunders. Fearing all is lost, and dreading having to return the ticket sales money if they are forced to cancel, Saunders comes up with a plan and enlists Max to help him out of his bind. A series of incidents involving mistaken identities, misunderstandings and multiple slamming doors sets a chain reaction in motion and hilarity ensues.
Bookwriter/lyricist Peter Sham smartly kept several of Ludwig's more ingeniously written scenes intact but also includes plenty of original touches. His lyrics, while not exactly on the intricate and intelligent level of someone like Stephen Sondheim, serve the plot well and add moments of humor. Brad Carroll's music is bouncy and fun, though not that memorable.
Hill's smart and solid direction and his more than capable cast elicit several perfectly timed moments that farces require. These include exaggerated characterizations, a quick pace, and exact precision when one character leaves through one door while another character almost instantly appears through a second. The lead actors include Michael Stewart as Max, Alex Gonzalez as Tito, and Roy Hunt as Saunders. All three achieve a heightened level of lunacy with Hunt especially superb as the frazzled manager Saunders. Stewart brings a sweet and gentle demeanor to the meek character of Max, though he doesn't quite play the part as nervous or fidgety as I've seen others do, though it still works. Gonzalez appears to be having a blast as the larger than life opera star. He and Stewart achieve a lovely friendship and, when confusion mounts and the plot spirals out of control, all three actors' confused facial expressions and crazed demeanor are expertly delivered. The three also sing very well.
As Max's girlfriend Maggie, who also happens to be Saunders' daughter, Jenny Harrington is full of charm, while Amy Powers is a hoot as Tito's long suffering and feisty wife Maria. Janine Smith makes a quite believable opera soprano and her solo of "May I Have a Moment?," which includes highlights from several famous opera arias, is a crowd pleaser. Sham and Carroll have changed the part of Julia, the opera guild supporter in Ludwig's farce, to now be three women who all are named Anna. They always appear together and have a fun connection to each other that I won't spoil. Lizz Reeves Fidler, Diane Senffner, and Jenny Cohen provide numerous fun touches in this trio of ladies.
Hill's set design for Tito's hotel suite is fairly simple, with just a few pieces of furniture and a bed plus the requisite four doors for the characters to slam, but it works perfectly. Unlike the play, which is only set in the suite, the musical expands the locations to include the opera house and other places, and the use of backdrops and a few small scenic elements is effective in portraying these areas. Noel Irick, who also provides the few bits of fun dance in the show, has created many colorful, period-centric costumes for the characters, including some beautiful dresses for the women. Jennifer Whiting's musical direction works well, though the four-piece band occasionally sounds a little thin, especially during the overture.
Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical is a nice updated take on Ludwig's classic comedy. While the musical score may not linger in your memory, the show is still fast paced, fun, and has a great plot. Fountain Hills Theater's production features a very talented cast and direction that keeps the action moving at a fast clip without detracting from the humor, and the end result is an exceptionally fun time with expertly delivered comical performances.
Fountain Hills Theater's production of Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical runs through July 10th, 2016, with performances at 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd. in Fountain Hills. Information on tickets can be found at www.fhtaz.org or by calling 480-837-9661.
Director/Set & Light Design: Peter J. Hill