CTP slams it with 'Tenor'

    Photo by Gerry KatzRose Passione plays Maria and David King-Gabriel plays Tito Merilli in Collaborative Theatre Project's "Lend Me a Tenor."

    “Lend Me a Tenor” is a high-velocity, very funny operatic farce, and you don’t need to be an opera buff to enjoy it from the first door slam to the last.

    Based on the play by Ken Ludwig and directed here by Rick Robinson, “Lend Me a Tenor, the Musical,” opened last week at the Collaborative Theatre Project.

    The cast of “Lend Me a Tenor” gets a real workout, as do the six doors built into the set of Collaborative Theatre Project’s latest production. Timing is everything in comedy, and every actor has dramatic swoons, yelps and bursts of song — not to mention the narrow escapes and door slams — down to the split second.

    It’s 1934 and the Cleveland Grand Opera Company is broke, but the guest appearance of the famed Italian tenor Tito Merelli, Il Stupendo, brings a full house that promises to save the day. A couple of things get in the way: Il Stupendo is drugged, falls asleep and is presumed dead, so Max goes on as Canio, and Saunders puts on the clown costume to greet Franklin D. Roosevelt, and now there are three clowns, three beauteous darlings seeking Il Stupendo’s attention, not to mention spoiled shrimp dip, three tap-dancing domestics, three ex-wives and six doors slamming. Phew!

    The three clowns, all Canio from “I Pagliacci,” are Henry Saunders, the manager of the opera house, Max, Saunders’ assistant, and Il Stupendo, Tito Merelli. Played respectively by the very tall Don Matthews, the nimble and expressive Christopher Hamby and the very suave, well-dressed Italian David King-Gabriel, the three clowns are easily distinguished from each other but are often confused in the play.

    It’s largely three beauties who do the confusing, the ingénue Maggie Saunders, played by Mia Gaskin, Tito’s tempestuous wife, Maria, played by Rose Passione, and the diva Diana, played by Kristen Calvin. Each brings very personal qualities to their roles: Gaskin’s shining eyes and besotted love, Passione’s fiery and passionate persona, and Calvin’s magnificent voice and ambitious sexuality.

    “Lend Me a Tenor” is a classic bedroom farce, and opera adds a sophisticated and challenging note to the production. Not only do Hamby, King-Gabriel, Matthews, Passione and Calvin have to speak Italian or English with passable Italian accents, the cast, particularly Calvin, must sing in Italian.

    As Diana, Calvin is amazing and drop-dead gorgeous. She is costumed in the exaggerated, theatrical traditions of the opera in long, shape-shimmering gowns, exposed bosom and bigger-than-life attitude. Diva Diana seeks Il Stupendo’s favor, patronage and connections, so she comes to his hotel room to demonstrate her talents — which are considerable.

    “May I Have a Moment” in Act II is an operatic buffet that is not to be believed. As Diana, Calvin performs a series of operatic highlights in 30-second, nonstop hysterical excerpts — love, suicide, longing, death, murder, rage, regret — with props she pulls out of a suitcase. It’s “O Sole Mio,” Verdi, Puccini, Wagner’s Brunhilde and more than you can imagine. The pace of this scene was so madcap fast that it’s not clear whether Calvin took a breath throughout.

    Hidden from view, but certainly evident in the production, are musicians Lori Calhoun on woodwinds, Bruce McKern on bass and Steve Sutfin on percussion, directed by Jennifer Schloming.

    The set was complicated and sturdy with moving walls, a very springy bed, sofa, lamps and small tables. The six doors were well constructed, and when the doors slammed, there was no discernible effect on the walls or other set pieces; in some theaters, those slamming doors would have taken down a wall, but not at CTP.

    “Lend Me a Tenor” opened to a full house last week with hors d’oeuvres provided by Porters, wine by Fences Winery of Medford and watercolors by Sharon Wesner. The audience pulled out all the stops for the costume contest and was decked out in tiaras and tuxes, sequins and satin bow ties.

    The play runs through Sept. 16 at CTP, 555 Medford Center. Tickets are $20-$28 and can be purchased online at www.ctporegon.org or by calling the box office at 541-779-1055.

    Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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