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‘Tenor’ Hits Funny Chord at Conejo : Players in this ‘30s-style farce pull it off with aplomb, achieving a certain harmony without overplaying their roles.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perhaps the largest of larger-than-life art forms, grand opera has proved surprisingly immune to satire--maybe because opera is thought to be too elitist for jokes about it to be understood by the masses. When populist art forms do take aim at its pomposity, though, the result can be as dead-on funny as the Marx Brothers’ classic “A Night at the Opera,” or the sublime Bugs Bunny animated short, “What’s Opera, Doc.”

Add to that brief list Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor,” a ‘30s-style farce whose plot pivots on antics taking place the night a professional company is in Cleveland. Ludwig seems to know the milieu, but his japes are broad enough that one needn’t be an opera fan to understand the gags, and there are enough slamming doors, mistaken identities and foolish lovers to satisfy just about anyone who enjoys such shenanigans.

The presentation by the Conejo Players in Thousand Oaks is played with clockwork precision under the direction of Rick Steinberg.

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As the curtain rises, the Cleveland company’s general manager, Henry Sanders (Terry Fishman) is frantic: The world-renowned tenor set to guest-star for the company’s anniversary concert hasn’t shown up for rehearsal, and nobody seems to know where he is. The brunt of Sanders’ fury is company gofer Max (Gary Romm), charged with locating the wayward star. More than his job is at stake: Max is sort of engaged to Sanders’ daughter, Maggie (Patricia Netzer), and terrified of her father.

The tenor, Tito Mirelli (Bill Hillstrom) eventually shows up, but by then the wheels of impending disaster are inextricably in motion. The rest of the brightly paced show is devoted to sorting out the confusion instigated by Max’s attempts to cover for the star’s absence.

A familiar face around the Conejo stage, Gary Romm has played Eugene Jerome in episodes of Neil Simon’s autobiographical trilogy. Max could be an extension of Romm’s Eugene--somewhere between Woody Allen and Jerry Lewis, and played with immaculate comic timing. Netzer is a welcome addition to the Conejo group as Max’s sweet, somewhat addled girlfriend, and Fishman happily resists any temptation to overplay the impresario. Likewise, Bill Hillstrom plays Tito for gentle laughs; the tenor is no buffoon, but simply caught up in circumstances he’s unwittingly set in motion.

Supporting characters, each with several moments to act silly, include Mirelli’s wife (Nancy Barker)--patient with his womanizing, but having had just about enough of it; a starstruck bellhop (Mark Fagundes); a man-hungry soprano (Aileen Scott); and the chair of the Cleveland Opera Guild (Pat Stewart).

The story doesn’t make much sense upon close inspection--the audience is required to believe that certain people are very easily fooled--but characterization and wit largely compensate for story shortcomings. Interestingly, there’s no real villain, and each character is quite sweet and vulnerable in his or her own way.

Details

* WHAT: “Lend Me a Tenor.”

* WHEN: Thursday through Saturday nights at 8:00 through July 23.

* WHERE: Conejo Players Theater, 351 S. Moorpark Rd., Thousand Oaks.

* HOW MUCH: $8 general admission Thursday, $10 Friday and $12 Saturday.

* FYI: Discounts are available for groups, children under 12, and seniors. For reservations or further information, call 495-3715.

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