St. Vincent Summer Theatre's 'Tenor' characters provide depth to popular farce
By Cynthia Bombach Helzel
Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2013, 8:40 p.m.
St. Vincent Summer Theatre wraps up its 2013 season with the popular farce “Lend Me a Tenor,” which runs through Aug. 18 at the Robert S. Carey Theater on the Unity campus.
The Tony-award-winning comedy begins when superstar tenor Tito Merelli comes to Cleveland in 1934 for a one-night-only gala opera performance of Verdi's “Otello.” In his hotel suite before the show, Tito unwittingly takes an overdose of tranquilizers. When the opera manager's assistant, the talented, aspiring singer Max, finds Tito passed out, he assumes the tenor is dead.
The opera manager convinces Max to impersonate the tenor so that the show can go on. Just as Max leaves to perform, Tito wakes up, hurriedly dresses in his Otello costume and rushes to the opera house to fulfill the role. In true farcical fashion, Tito and Max soon return to the hotel suite, which becomes a scene of chaos as the two Otellos are repeatedly mistaken for each other and have comic misadventures with a pair of amorous women dressed in lingerie.
“Comedies don't get much better than this,” director Colleen Reilly says. “The playwright (Ken Ludwig) has a real gift. He combines a farcical style of theater with real, three-dimensional characters with real depth of humanity. That combination is really special.”
The mixture of farce with believable characters is very appealing to actor Jeff Howell, who plays Tito Merelli. “It's funny and outrageous and ridiculous, but it all comes from a real place,” he says.
Howell compares Tito's public persona to that of famed opera star Luciano Pavarotti.
“When I was in college, Pavarotti came to a neighboring town,” he says. “We went to see him, and it was electrifying.”
In private, however, Tito is a more down-to-earth person. He even takes time to give Max a singing lesson before the tranquilizers knock him out. “He's really a compassionate, warm-hearted, well-meaning guy, just caught up in all these circumstances,” Howell says.
The two sides of Tito's personality make him an enjoyable character for Howell to play. “I love playing characters that have that bigger-than-life look and feel to them, but then you find out there's more to them than that. They're human,” he says.
Equally multidimensional is Maria, Tito's wife. She is jealous, possessive and deeply in love with her husband.
“She's passionate about Tito, but he's so busy with his career that it hurts her,” says Cary Anne Spear, who plays Maria. “It makes her sad, and that makes her angry — of course, in a very farcical, amusing way.”
Like Howell, Spear enjoys the depth of feeling shown by the play's characters. “There's so much to be quietly charmed by, as well as the hilarity of the farcical miscommunication. There's no mean-spiritedness in these characters. As a performer, I really appreciate that.”
In addition to Howell and Spear, the cast includes Kevin Daniel O'Leary as Max, Audra Qualley as Maggie, David Cabot as Saunders, Zachary Rumski as the bellhop, Lara Hayhurst as Diana and Patricia Reilly as Julia.
Cynthia Bombach Helzel is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.
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