Lend Me a Tenor, Gielgud Theatre, London
Tuesday 21 June 2011
I loved Ken Ludwig's operatic backstage farce when it was produced on this same stage (then the Globe) 25 years ago; and I love this new musical comedy adaptation – by unknown Americans Peter Sham (book and lyrics) and Brad Carroll (music) – even more.
Ian Talbot's beautifully drilled production is a genuine surprise: a so-called summer filler that more than earns its keep and boasts three of the season's outstanding West End performances.
These come from Matthew Kelly as Henry Saunders, the distraught manager of the Grand Opera House in Cleveland, Ohio; Damian Humbley as the modest understudy Max, who goes on as Otello when the Italian star, Tito Merelli (Michael Matus), takes an overdose; and Sophie-Louise Dann as Diana DiVane, a formidable diva nailing her man (she thinks) and stopping the show with a glorious operatic revue ragbag of Puccini, Bizet, Verdi and Wagner.
You get a fair dollop of Otello itself in the opening chorus before Tito's delayed arrival, cunningly reworked with new lyrics. The rest is period pastiche – the year is 1934 – with foxtrot and waltz numbers for leaping bellboys and housemaids, and even a chase when three "Otellos" in black face are on the loose, pursued by lady members of the Opera Guild, all ex-wives of Henry.
It's the 50th anniversary of the opera house, the Roosevelts are coming, but the shrimp buffet is turning green, and the heat is rising.
Max's fiancée, Maggie, Henry's daughter, sweetly done by Cassidy Janson, wants one last fling with Merelli, and Max in make-up, whose idea of fun is a round of crazy golf, has an unexpected chance to short-circuit her naughtiness as doors slam, Otellos proliferate and copulation thrives in the penthouse suite.
Sure, the whole shebang's a bit of a throwback, but it's fun and finished to a very high standard, with a purple and gold-leaf design by Paul Farnsworth, clever lighting by Tim Mitchell, joyously old-fashioned choreography by Randy Skinner, and a great little band under Colin Billing.
The score veers towards Lloyd Webber in one number but knows its modest place on the whole, probably policed by Joanna Riding's strict and stylish occupation of bosom-fancying Merelli's ("che meloni!") betrayed and vengeful travelling spouse.
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