A time warp to a simpler age of musicals, where irony has yet to be invented and performers strike comic tableaux after every song, where audiences applaud the mechanical scene changes and there’s a reprise of the tap routine at the end, Lend Me a Tenor is nothing new, but it never pretends to be.
A musical farce that’s too committed to be kitsch, this simple story of mistaken identity in a neurotic Cleveland Opera house is consistently if modestly entertaining. Based on Ken Ludwig’s 1986 play of the same name, Lend Me a Tenor could have been written in the 1950’s. Matthew Kelly tears great chunks out of the scenery and swallows them whole as Henry Saunders, the impresario driven to distraction by the chaos which engulfs his gala performance of Otello. His energy drives the majority of the comedy, with Kelly once again proving his musical credentials with an impressive voice and great charisma. Better still is Damian Humbly in the role of Saunder’s beleaguered clerk, a part with more than a hint of Little Shop’s Seymour Krelborn. Humbly truly soars in ‘Be Yourself’, his duet with opera giant Tito Merelli (Michael Matus), but his exceptional singing and perfect comic timing carry much of the second act.
The real show-stopper here is ‘May I Have a Moment’, where leading-lady Diana (Sophie-Louise Dann) attempts to seduce Tito with her operatic repertoire, gliding effortlessly and hilariously from Gazzaniga to Wagner in five breathless minutes. Outside of this there is a paucity of opera jokes for a piece set in such obviously rich comic territory.
A little risqué, a lot unreconstructed, this is a play in which the comedy reaches its peak when three men in blackface bed-hop their way around a hotel shouting in bad Italian accents. The stock characters are all here, the nymphomaniac leading lady, the domineering Italian wife, the virgin eager for a fling before her wedding day: so far so sea-side postcard. There is a basic problem with the structure too; farce requires a delicate and gradual building of pace and intensity, one that is completely at odds with the form of the musical. Every time director Ian Talbot cranks up the tension, it is lost in an extended musical digression, farces of this nature should be a cacophony of slamming doors, here they are rudely punctuated with ballads and chorus lines.
Almost purposefully unremarkable, Lend Me a Tenor is nevertheless a showcase for some outstanding singing talent and a nostalgic tribute to musical comedies of old.