By Pam Harbaugh
VERO BEACH — Those needing a good hearty laugh will find the right medicine in Riverside Theatre’s achingly hilarious production of A Comedy of Tenors.
Directed by James Brennan and performed by a first-rate cast, the show is awash with impeccable split-second timing, zany, over the top half-clad characters, mistaken identity and jokes galore.
Yes, this is a farce. It is written by Ken Ludwig, America’s own expert at the genre. In A Comedy of Tenors, Ludwig revisits characters from his Tony-Award winning 1989 farce, Lend Me a Tenor. He happily brings back to life the characters of renowned opera singer Tito Merelli and his hot-blooded wife, Maria. Ludwig also resurrects Saunders, a Midwest producer constantly beset with crises, and Max, Merelli’s stressed-out manager who loves to sing opera and made a reluctant debut in Lend Me a Tenor.
A Comedy of Tenors is set two years later in a Parisian hotel suite in the 1930s. The storyline revolves around Merelli who has come to town to perform that evening with two other famous tenors, Jussi Bjorling and Max, who has risen somewhat in the ranks of opera singers. Saunders has booked the concert in a nearby soccer stadium and billed it as “the biggest concert in the history of Paris.” (Ludwig says this plot point was inspired by the 1990 Rome concert with Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.)
It is three hours before the concert. All seems to be going well. Then comes word that Bjorling has canceled his appearance which sets Saunders in frenzied motion to find a replacement three hours before the concert. Fast forward a couple of fun plot twists and in comes Carlo Nucci, a rising opera star crowding in on Merelli’s fame. Merelli is already anxious about growing old, especially after his voiced cracked “once on the high C” while singing Donizetti. But after some fawning “big fan, big fan” moments from Nucci, Merelli relaxes and decides he has misjudged the young man.
So far, the show has been plenty funny. There’s hysterical slapstick, a lot of goofy play on exaggerated accents, romantic entanglements and fun word play. The actors make it look like a breeze to do. Then, comes a remarkable moment: Merelli, Nucci and Max have a quick rehearsal of “Brindisi,” the so-called “Drinking Song,” from La Traviata. The voices are splendid, the gusto with which they sing fills our hearts and we, the audience, are blown away in a Memorex moment and we know that they just have been making it look easy.
And that’s not even half-way through. Merelli storms out in anger and a few minutes later in comes Beppo the singing bellhop with the enormous moustache who looks very much like Merelli. Like Clark Kent and Superman, Beppo never appears on stage at the same time as Merelli. Then add the Russian soprano Tatiana Racon, Merelli’s former lover who finds herself conveniently in town and intent on rekindling an old flame. Yes, she mistakes Beppo for Merelli.
Throw in a cacophony of slamming doors, amorous imbroglios and dizzying pace and you’ve got a most satisfying farce.
Making all this work in Riverside’s A Comedy of Tenors is a dream team of theater professionals. Director Brennan, who gave us the wonderful fight scene between Elyot and Amanda in the second act of Riverside’s Private Lives, maintains his Riverside reputation in lavishing the stage with broad physical action, over-the-top fun and impeccable timing. In fact, this production evokes cartoon zaniness with the big-a accents-a, complete with ferocious gesticulations, and the madcap stage action. All that’s missing is Elmer Fudd looking for that wascally wabbit. Brennan’s cartoon inspired concept here works very well, from the two-dimensional broad stroke touches by scenic designer Michael Schweikardt, to lighting designer Todd Wren’s final curtain call of one large spotlight (That’s all, folks!).
The cast here all have deep backgrounds, from decades on Broadway and celebrated regional theaters, to venerable concert venues and major tours.
Ron Bohmer has infectious fun in his roles of Tito Merelli and Beppo. Bohmer has been an award-winning Broadway performer for 30 years. He was the Phantom in The Phantom of the Opera, Father in Ragtime, Enjolras in Les Misérables and so much more. While those are serious dramatic roles, here, he squeezes out the last drop of broad comic zaniness. With caricature Italian accent he goes very broad and we are very grateful for it.
Jennifer Cody puts every square inch of her petite self into motion in her sensational turn as Maria Merelli. What a treat to watch this energetic fireball. Her Broadway credits are many and include Shrek, Pajama Game, A Christmas Story and so much more. She’s performed off-Broadway in Charles Bush’s company and she received a Drama League Nomination for Henry and Mudge. She’s also been in a long list of television and film.
Broadway actor Ray Demattis is the perfect befuddled Saunders and in this role rather evocative of Jerry Stiller’s Frank Costanza. A Broadway actor who has also appeared on television and in film, Susan Cella brings delicious vamping delight to the stage as Tatiana Racon. Cella also had a most winning turn as Sonia in Riverside’s excellent Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike also directed by Brennan.
Ryan Jesse brings a welcomed rational sweetness to stage in his role as Max. Anthony Festa was Tony in Riverside’s West Side Story and here brings an ideal touch of comedy and musicality to his role as Carlo Nucci. And Stephanie Bacastow is sweet perfection as Mimi Merelli, the actress daughter of Tito and Maria.
Riverside Theatre’s A Comedy of Tenors is sheer fun. It’s a good time to let down all the world’s sturm und drang, red and blue division, or whatever else might be plaguing your heart, and head to the theater where you can commune with others and just have a damn good time. Like you used to do when you were a kid and watched the cartoons with friends.
A Comedy of Tenors runs through March 12 at Riverside Theatre, 3250 Riverside Park Drive, Vero Beach, Fla. Tickets start at $45. For more information, call 772-231-6990 or visit RiversideTheatre.com.
Pam Harbaugh writes for Vero News. This is a version of her review running in VeroNews.com.