sat 25/10/2014

Lend Me a Tenor - The Musical, Gielgud Theatre | Theatre reviews, news & interviews

Lend Me a Tenor - The Musical, Gielgud Theatre

Far from a flop, this frothy 1930s pastiche is strongly cast and staged

Yes he can: Damian Humbley's Max Garber finds the tenor within while Michael Matus's Tito Merelli leaps for joy
Yes he can: Damian Humbley's Max Garber finds the tenor within while Michael Matus's Tito Merelli leaps for joyAll production photographs by Roy Tan

Acid prophecies of this show’s swift demise, as with that of the great Italian tenor whose supposed transformation from il stupendo to il stifferino results in the debut of a surpise new Otello at the "Cleveland Grand Opera", turn out to be greatly exaggerated. Allora, the tunes and the lyrics aren’t prime cut, but it’s slickly done, strongly cast and contains enough frothy set pieces to earn its salt. And any musical which has stylish fun with both the most electrifying opening of any opera (Verdi's, of course) and the noblest curtain deserves to run and run, in my book at least.

Not having seen the original play by Ken Ludwig, I can only imagine it not quite sustaining an evening's entertainment, despite the Feydeau-farce aspect (there's much charging in and out of doors by the three tenors in the Act II mayhem here, which sadly doesn't seem to be there among the production shots). But in pastiching a musical of the Depression-dodging 1930s, where the action is very firmly set, lyricist Peter Sham and composer Brad Carroll do no worse than Mel Brooks in his songs for The Producers. Admittedly that has a funnier premise which is better sustained, but the laughs come reasonably thick and fast here too. And I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than the last time I heard Verdi's Otello, in a badly miscast concert performance conducted by Sir Colin Davis.

The main caveat first: although Ian Talbot's direction and the performances keep everything just about ticking along thanks to impeccable timing, about a quarter of an hour of the score needs to go. Excellent as Damian Humbley is in both show and operatic mode, his character - Max Garber, the boychick who gets the confidence to release his inner Otello and win the girl as well as his operatic laurels - doesn't need two sentimental numbers. Especially as there's already enough crowdpleasing Les Mis schmaltz in the torch song, where Michael Matus proves equally good as the surprisingly loveable senior tenor who persuades his protégé to "Be Youself". So what if I came out with my head full of Karen Carpenter singing Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire", the slightly better song it dangerously resembles? At least something stuck.

Lend_Me_a_Tenor_Kelly_Ladies_Roy_TanThe rest isn't exactly catchy, but it works. The curtain rises on the Cleveland Grand Opera chorus screaming their lungs out in the height of Verdi's storm at the start of Otello, interwoven with "Where the Hell is Merelli?" (Otello's "Esulatate!" seems destined not to be sung by the appropriate powerhouse tenor). There are so-so roles for the trio of Opera Guild Ladies who turn out to be ex-wives of impresario Henry Saunders - the ever-surprising Matthew Kelly (pictured above right with Jane Quinn, Michelle Bishop and Gay Soper) who's a bit dodgy on the accent, but uses his very funny rubbery mug to get the laughs without trying too hard - as well as the young ingénue, Cassidy Janson, who gets no small help from the wickedly accurate giant star-shots of her adored Merelli a la Corelli or De Monaco.

Lend_Me_a_Tenor_Dann_Roy_TanIt's Sophie-Louise Dann as the cruelly dubbed inge-not-so-nue, the Desdemona of Diana DiVane, who comes close to stealing the show (pictured left). Her catalogue of audition pieces to impress her presumed co-star seems to have baffled some theatregoers, but opera lovers will be relieved that she doesn't put a foot wrong as she runs the gamut from mad Lucia to sweet Lauretta via Carmen and Brünnhilde. This is spot-on stuff, even down to the quarter-tone-flat Butterfly which sees Matus's Merelli wincingly willing the pitch up a bit.

Lend_Me_a_Tenor_Riding_Roya_TanAs for the divo and his diva-ish wife, you'd think the cod accents would wear, but they don't, thanks to Matus's genuine charm and a real rescue job on a fairly thankless part by Joanna Riding as the equally histrionic Maria (pictured right). The Rossinian duet they sing could be cheesy, but as the pill-popping discussion switches into Italian, silent-film-style supertitle translations keep the gag fresh, and the number narrowly avoids outstaying its welcome. Perhaps I'd be spoiling the fun to say too much about the parallel high jinks in the second act, but again they're consummately well done as three Otellos of various shapes, sizes, make-up and big hair whizz in and out of a penthouse suite which looks - quite intentionally, I'm sure, in the expert hands of Paul Farnsworth - like some overenthusiastic designer's idea of the Marschallin's boudoir and antechamber in Act I of Der Rosenkavalier.

There's not a weak link in the cast, down to the bigger of the two tap-dancing bellhops, and the joke of the overdone welcome by the hotel staff is well sustained. Fine saxophone trio work, too, among the 14 musicians, producing some authentic Thirties sounds - musical supervision by Paul Gemignani always ensures quality - though it's a shame the amplification is, as usual on the London musical stage, too loud. So no, for me it's not "Lend me a pillow", as one vicious wagster put it, but "Take me again". And if you like to see showbiz staging at its slick, frivolous best, you shouldn't miss it either.

Watch Placido Domingo in the final scene of Verdi's Otello

Watch the trailer for Lend Me a Tenor

Sophie-Louise Dann, as the cruelly dubbed inge-not-so-nue, comes close to stealing the show

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Comments

David, succinctly sums up the appeal of this show. It brought to mind: Kiss Me Kate meets The Producers with a dash of A Night At The Opera. Act 2 needs a little tweak and as with all fast-moving farces it needs time to settle. Could be a big hit with family audiences and the teen and pre-teen market that 'Wicked' has cornered could find it very appealing. Just need to persuade Delfont Mackintosh to replace the in-house ice cream line with "Cornettos" and they're home.

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