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Review: On Theater: A wild encore for ‘Tenor’ in Newport Beach

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Newport Theatre Arts Center brings back its most requested play, “Lend Me a Tenor,” through July 1.
(Courtesy of Newport Theatre Arts Center)

Neil Simon may be king of the wisecracking comedy and Stephen Sondheim has few peers in the realm of musical theater, but another, less-ballyhooed, name reigns in the realm of frantic, slam-bang farce — that of Ken Ludwig.

Ludwig specializes both in placing his characters in weird, outlandish situations and in propelling them out of peril at breakneck speed. His first, and best, such accomplishment is “Lend Me a Tenor,” now tearing up the stage at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

Newport produced “Tenor” once before, in the mid-1990s, and it’s past time for an encore. Director Gigi Fusco Meese has assembled a superlative cast of enthusiastic actors to keep the tempo humming. And if you think the show is fast and furious, wait till you see the curtain call.

It’s 1934 in Cleveland and the city’s opera company is mounting a production of “Otello,” starring the renowned tenor Tito Morelli. The only hitch is that the singer has fallen unconscious (and feared dead) in his hotel room. What to do?

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Fortunately, a young company assistant who sings a little is pushed front and center as a stand-in, but when the real Tito awakens, the pace quickens with operatic amores rushing in and out of the suite pursuing one or the other of the Titos as pandemonium reigns.

Mike X. Carson excels as the young factotum thrust into the spotlight, seamlessly engineering the bedlam around him. His sweetheart, the opera manager’s daughter with designs on Tito, is played quite charmingly and naturally by Emily MacAgy.

Topping the cast in yet another bombastic performance is veteran funnyman Bob Fetes as the opera chieftain, straining in his fury until his bald pate takes on a reddish glow. He’s counterbalanced by Beverly Crain, who plays the haughty chairwoman like a kittenish Margaret Dumont.

The portly, bellicose Tito, whose voice rattles the rafters, is richly presented by Paul Burt, properly over the top in his third appearance as the character on a local stage. Nancy Higley is particularly effective as Tito’s shrewish, snappish wife.

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Two characters seemingly tossed in to further stimulate the plot are the obsequious hotel bellhop (Robert Moniz) and the ambitious local prima donna (Lori Kelley). Both contribute lustily to the overall confusion.

The actors breeze in and out of Andrew Otero’s five-doored set and revel in Joni Stockinger’s period costumes. Brian Page’s booming sound effects lend an operatic flair, though they’re occasionally overdone.

“Lend Me a Tenor” is among the finest of American farcical favorites and its rebirth in the hands of Meese and her energetic cast is an occasion for merriment at the Newport Theatre Arts Center.

If You Go

What: “Lend Me a Tenor”

When: Through July 1; performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Newport Theatre Arts Center, 2501 Cliff Drive, Newport Beach

Cost: $20

Information: (949) 631-0288 or ntaconline.com.

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TOM TITUS reviews local theater.


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