- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2005

“Never trust a man in tights” is one of the pithy life lessons you come away with from “Lend Me a Tenor,” Ken Ludwig’s lunatic-paced operatic farce currently receiving a classy, robust production at Olney Theatre Center.

The success of farce depends on impeccable timing and much slamming of doors. Under John Going’s expert direction, “Tenor” has both in spades. The agile cast keeps up an effervescent Kentucky Derby pace for more than two hours. And their door-slamming techniques are an aural silly symphony, ranging from the “I’ve had it” and “That’s final” hinge-rattlers to the more subtle “Oops” and “Get in the closet — quick” jamb-bangers.

Set in a posh 1930s hotel suite in Cleveland, “Tenor” contains all the elements of classic farce — mistaken identity, misconstrued conversations, double entendres, people in disguise and a collection of stock characters. To this mix, Mr. Ludwig adds a wiggy plot spoofing opera buffs and “high culture.”

Tito Merelli (Paul Jackel), an Italian tenor known as much for his roaming hands and tippling as he is for his voice, arrives in Cleveland for a special performance of “Otello.” Everything is riding on this evening, warns the hysterically cranked up Saunders (Allen Fitzpatrick), the opera company’s bottom-line-minded manager. His lily-livered assistant, Max (John Scherer), a tenor with aspirations of his own, is instructed never to let Tito out of his sight — or anywhere near a woman or a Chianti bottle — until showtime.

Of course, this is a farce, and Tito’s road to ruin involves his volcanically jealous wife, Maria (Julie-Ann Elliott); the sexy and scheming soprano Diana (Valerie Leonard); an ingenue named Maggie (Liz Mamana), who is desperate for a fling before she settles down; a bottle of pills; and a bellhop (Evan Casey) who belts out arias at the drop of a cap. When Tito is found to be “indisposed,” it is Max who steps into his tights and the footlights, and in the process realizes his inner matinee idol.

“Tenor” is dizzy, fizzy fun, and Mr. Going and the cast never let the pace lag or opportunities for shameless mugging go by. This is a production fraught with double takes, triple takes, eyebrows raised to the scalp line, gymnastic physical humor and slapstick more fitting for Elmer Fudd than for “Otello.”

Everyone gets into the runaway spirit of the piece, including Halo Wines, playing Julia, a bossy doyenne of the opera guild. Seizing her moment alone with Tito, she flings herself on the couch like a lotus blossom waiting to be plucked and asks with mock coyness, “How can I ever thank you for what you’ve done tonight?” Julia could figure out a way.

Miss Leonard amps her patent smoldering qualities to hilarious extremes as the scheming soprano, Diana, while Miss Mamana makes the role of the wide-eyed debutante somehow seem crisp and new.

Mr. Casey is a stitch as the opera-mad bellhop, singing through keyholes and phone receivers while wielding heavy room-service trays. As Max, Mr. Scherer nimbly goes from uncertain to heroic in the course of the play, and his light tenor is quite credible.

As Saunders, Mr. Fitzpatrick makes apoplexy a cause for chortles. Mr. Jackel and Miss Elliott make the most of their roles as Tito and Maria, their language mangling a constant source of hilarity and their slippery hold on sanity a joy to behold.

You don’t need to be an opera buff to appreciate “Lend Me a Tenor,” merely someone who enjoys bubbly wit that lasts long after the fat lady sings.

***1/2

WHAT: “Lend Me a Tenor,” by Ken Ludwig

WHERE: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney.

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Sundays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 12.

TICKETS: $15 to $39

PHONE: 301/924-3400

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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