Encore Michigan

Bedlam and belly laughs at The Encore

Review March 31, 2013 Encore Staff

By Carolyn Hayes

From a mission-statement standpoint, The Encore Musical Theatre Company’s leap from four seasons of wall-to-wall musicals to a “straight” stage play is a noteworthy development. From an artistic standpoint, however, the theater’s production of “Lend Me a Tenor” (by Ken Ludwig) delivers unequivocal proof that there is no learning curve for director Tobin Hissong and his sharp ensemble. This zany behind-the-scenes farce is profusely funny on its own merits and reaches exceptional performative heights, no qualifier required.

It’s going to be a huge night of prestige and fundraising clout for the Cleveland Opera Company, which has nabbed world-famous Italian tenor Tito Mirelli (Brian Sage) for his American debut, singing “Otello.” And the gala is going to go perfectly, provided that every variable falls magically into place – details like the man of the hour showing up, or agreeing to attend rehearsal. Care and maintenance of the noted womanizer is entrusted to lowly Max (Sebastian Gerstner), whose prime directives are to keep the star out of trouble and to deliver him punctually to the stage door, or else face the rage of the explosively stressed Saunders (Paul Hopper).

If only poor Max had noticed the number of doors in designer Leo Babcock’s luxe two-room hotel suite. There are no less than six doors visible in the lovely gilt-beige 1934 art deco setting, simply amber-lit by Daniel Walker, and all are oiled and optimized for frequent use – bad for Max and the gala, good for the audience.

Beginning with Tito’s tardiness, and continuing with the unexpected wrinkle of his hot-blooded, accusatory wife (Angela Miller) tagging along, the misfortunes keep on coming. Throughout the first act, the extent of each crisis is directly proportional to the comic strength of the absurdly implausible material, allowing the frantic Gerstner and Hopper to shine as they endeavor to keep the stable of bigger, broader supporting characters blissfully uninformed. But considering the growing queue of women who want a piece of Tito, it’s only a matter of time before a misunderstanding begets a crisis, which snowballs into a whoopsie overdose, which leaves Max and Saunders no choice but to enact a Hail-Mary switcheroo in order to keep the event afloat. (The plausibility of the substitution is foreshadowed in the establishing scenes, including an impromptu singing lesson that elegantly references The Encore’s musical foundations.)

Fortunately for our heroes, the little substitution works; unfortunately for them, this means continuing to keep up the ruse, a prospect that becomes even more unfortunate when some parties are less dead to the world than previously thought. Yet even one real Tito and one impostor on the loose (both in blackface as Otello, a necessary evil for this level of deception) can hardly keep up with the clamor of hangers-on: the casting-couch costar (Tara Tomcsik-Husak), the high-status opera board president (Barbara Coven), the overstepping bellhop (Elliott Styles), and even Max’s own true love (Thalia Schramm), a romantic naïf who wants to be swept off her feet before settling down. Needless to say, costume designer Sharon Larkey Urick’s vision is working overtime with duplicate outfits, sophisticated black-tie ensembles, and skimpy underthings, as the characters’ euphoric post-opera libidos and mistaken identities make for strange bedfellows indeed.

The result is mayhem of the finest order, a universally proficient show with generous portions of exceptional to boot. The wily Tomcsik-Husak strews the stage with devilishly rich innuendo, and later levels with Schramm in a rare scene of female complicity. Brutish baby Sage is also deserving of mention, especially his delightfully infectious reactions to bewildering second-act encounters. Above all, however, is Gerstner’s extraordinary lead performance: The actor shows a unique gift for deadpan squareness that is equally as funny as his later fits of melodramatic apoplexy, not to mention above-and-beyond physical excesses that sing.

Skillful production and playful entertainment both, this “Lend Me a Tenor” has tricks up its sleeve that go beyond complex door-slamming precision and a flair for the histrionic. It stands to reason that plays that are evidently fun to perform are even more fun to watch, and judging by the energy ping-ponging through the house on opening night, Hissong and company (and, by extension, the viewer) have hit the fun jackpot.

Week of 11/29/2021

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