THEATER REVIEW : 'Tenor' Gets Laughs by Using Physical Farce

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"Lend Me a Tenor" is the sort of door-slamming farce that makes you laugh even when you know you shouldn't. It's that bad and, occasionally, that funny.

In the Fullerton Civic Light Opera outdoor production, at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center's Theatre on the Green, one performance is outright hilarious and the rest mildly comical.

Randy Gianetti doesn't have the physical heft usually associated with a world-famous tenor known to his adoring fans as "Il Stupendo." He looks so trim and snappy in his crisp blue suit and braces that he resembles nothing so much as a fashion model--which accords still less with references in the dialogue to his prodigious eating habits.

But Gianetti gives such a deliciously giddy performance as Tito Merelli--a discombobulated Italian opera star whose immense appetites for women and food are about equal--that he makes you forget his unimposing size.

Like a crack vaudevillian, he anticipates calamity with a mere roll of his eyes and a startled glance of confusion that take you thrillingly over the top. His dashing slapstick style delivers sublime belly laughs. Whenever he is at stage center, the entire production soars.

Otherwise the show has a tendency to flatten out--particularly during a first act that is given over to exposition during which Tito lies unconscious on his bed much of the time, a victim of indigestion and phenobarbital.

Nevertheless, the combination of Ken Ludwig's shamelessly dopey script, Frank Coppola's routine staging and actors more than willing to ham it up in direct proportion to the predictability of their lines--which means lame puns and lots of mugging--seems ready-made for summer stock.

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The plot centers on Tito's arrival in Cleveland, where he is scheduled to star in Verdi's "Otello" for the 10th anniversary celebration of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company.

When he becomes too sick to go on, Saunders (James Luisi), the local impresario who stands to lose a fortune if the gala event is canceled, agrees to a hoax in which his meek assistant, Max (Jim Whitson), a would-be singer with fantasies of glory, will substitute for the star.

The main subplot revolves around Max's efforts to woo Saunders' daughter, Maggie (Evelyn Carol Case), who swoons over Tito just like all the other women in the play.

They include Julia (Kathy Davis), the dowager of the opera guild; Diana (Meredith Woodson), a soprano femme fatale on the make for a career, and Tito's jealous wife, Maria (Linda Bisesti), who suspects her husband of nonstop infidelity, for good reason.

The farce gains its greatest fizz in the second act, after Max has triumphed in the opera (which occurs offstage). Still wearing his Otello costume and brown-face makeup, he returns to Tito's hotel room to change.

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But he is caught in a game of mistaken identities because Tito, having recovered from his illness, has gotten into costume and makeup himself (albeit too late for the opera performance).

The seduction scene between Tito and Diana is the show's funniest.

She thinks he has just been on stage with her. He has never laid eyes on her before. Misunderstandings and double-entendres pile up. She speaks of being "in the business." He thinks she means she's a prostitute. Meanwhile, Maggie seduces Max, thinking he is Tito. And so on.

As Saunders, Luisi dominates the stage in a full-blown tirade. Whitson gives a solid performance as Max, a bespectacled schnook played something like an oversized Woody Allen. The statuesque Woodson makes a creditably sexy Diana. And Case is game as Maggie, though a littletoo old to play the ingenue.

Davis' stuffy dowager is sufficient. Bisesti's jealous Maria would be more believable if her Italian accent didn't sound like it came from Brooklyn. Rounding out the cast, Paul Sharaba plays the star-struck bellhop with apt pushiness.

Although "Lend Me a Tenor" is supposed to take place in 1934, none of the acting suggests the period. Very little of anything else does either, except for some of the women's ill-fitting costumes and Maggie's overdone virginity.

The rented set does have an Art Deco look but gives the impression of a bus-and-truck budget rather than a classy hotel suite.

Speaking of taste, the most gracious aspect of the evening is the pleasant pre-show dinner surroundings. Playgoers are served in a lovely Muckenthaler courtyard beneath tall trees. The main course, on the evening this reviewer attended, was an approximation of enchiladas.

* "Lend Me a Tenor," Theatre on the Green at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center, 1201 W. Malvern Ave., Fullerton. Tuesdays-Sundays, 8:15 p.m. (gates open for dinner Thursdays-Sundays at 6:45 p.m.). Ends Aug. 7. $20 (Tuesdays and Wednesdays show only); $28 and $29 with dinner (Thursday-Sundays). (714) 879-1732 and (714) 526-3832 (an incorrect phone number was listed in Sunday's Calendar). Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

Evelyn Carol Case: Maggie

Jim Whitson: Max

James Luisi: Saunders

Randy Gianetti: Tito Merelli

Linda Bisesti: Maria

Paul Sharaba: Bellhop

Meredith Woodson: Diana

Kathy Davis: Julia

A Fullerton Civic Light Opera production. Written by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Frank Coppola. Sets and costumes furnished by J Ned Inc. Lighting design: Donna Ruzika. Sound design: Nelsonics. Vocal coach: Suzanne Harmon. Sound technician: John Ostby. Lighting technician: Gene Schutt. Makeup artist: Heather Stafford. Hair and wig design: Irma Torres. Stage manager: Donna R. Parsons.

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