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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Lend Me A Tenor
Gielgud Theatre   Summer 2011

This new musical from America asks the theatrical question Why?

Why turn a perfectly adequate stage farce into a musical when the songs add nothing and frequently get in the way of the comedy? Lend Me A Tenor is not a disaster, but all its virtues come from the original play.

Ken Ludwig's 1986 play is an unassuming little farce about a provincial opera company – the very concept of the Cleveland Grand Opera is a joke, like Patrick Barlow's National Theatre of Brent – putting on Verdi's Otello.

When the big-name visiting guest star accidentally takes an overdose of sleeping pills, a local singer has to put on the costume and blackface and pretend to be him.

He pulls it off, but then has to deal with opera groupies including his own girlfriend, and with the complications that arise when the star wakes up and groggily gets into costume and makeup himself. At one point there are actually three Otellos rushing about, never quite running into each other but repeatedly being mistaken for each other.

It is of the essence of farce that things happen at such a fast pace, and with mounting hysteria, that the audience doesn't have time to think about how improbable and silly the whole thing is. So stopping the action at regular intervals for a musical interlude seems inherently a bad idea, especially when the songs by Brad Carroll and Peter Sham of the Utah Shakespeare Festival (not another joke – it really exists) are uniformly uninteresting.

Carroll's melodies are occasionally quite sweet, but Sham's pedestrian lyrics invite your mind to wander into questions like whether just taking off his eyeglasses makes the hero unrecognisable to his girlfriend and why nobody notices that the three Otellos look nothing alike.

Damian Humbley is amiable as the shnook who blossoms when everyone thinks he's the visiting celebrity, and Matthew Kelly has fun wildly overacting as the panicky impresario.

The women in the cast – Cassidy Janson as the ingenue, Sophie-Louise Dann as the inge-not-so-new (one of the script's better gags) and Joanna Riding as the visitor's cartoon-Italian wife - are almost completely wasted, though Dann has one good scene auditioning for the visitor with a rapid-fire medley of opera's greatest hits while also trying to seduce him.

When the adaptors get out of the way, some of Ludwig's farce works, particularly in the second half when things get most frantic and silly, but the general effect is to make you wish the producers had just revived the original rather than unsuccessfully gilding the lily.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Lend Me A Tenor - Guilgud 2011