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'Lend Me a Tenor' hits the right notes at Stage West

Kaela Koch, as Maggie, and Brian Moran, as Max, perform in Lend Me a Tenor at Stage West Community Playhouse.

Courtesy of Carol Ballard

Kaela Koch, as Maggie, and Brian Moran, as Max, perform in Lend Me a Tenor at Stage West Community Playhouse.

No, the audience at Lend Me a Tenor at Stage West Community Playhouse really wasn't abducted by space aliens on opening night Thursday.

It's just that the show, though 2 hours, 20 minutes, seemed to go by so fast and the wild antics on stage were so engrossing and entertaining that some in the audience might have thought they'd been transported to another galaxy.

An excellent cast, good pacing, incredibly nifty timing, zany physical humor, a terrific set, lighting, and costumes, and, perhaps most important, impeccable guidance by first-time director Lynda Dilts-Benson combined to make the Ken Ludwig show loads of fun from beginning to end.

Tenor is the tale of Italian heartthrob Tito Merelli (Patrick Moran with a spot-on Italian accent that never falters), who is coming to perform with the Cleveland Grand Opera. He's late, driving theater manager Saunders (Dalton Benson) wild with worry and Saunders' young daughter Maggie (Kaela Koch) wild with longing for a glimpse of her idol.

Theater gofer Max (Brian Moran) lands in the middle of all of this, as he tries to woo Maggie, please Saunders, and take care of Merelli once he arrives. Merelli's wife, the wildly jealous — and rightly so — Maria (Jennifer Vilardi) berates her husband for his philandering ways, while Opera Guild chairman Julia (Cheryl Roberts) and aspiring opera singer Diana (Jeanene MacLean) do their best to become one of Merelli's conquests, even as a star-struck bellhop (Tony Pucci) pops in and out of the hotel suite with champagne, coffee and a camera.

Ludwig's script is filled with clever setups and payoffs, but the execution of these lines makes the show work, and this is where the Stage West cast and crew shine.

The easy route is just to shout everything, but Dilts-Benson doesn't let the cast take the easy route. Instead, the show has a great rhythm and measured pacing, calm when needed and thunderous when called for, with small gestures saying volumes and big moments packed with layers of information.

Indeed, with shows like this, the relatively small size of the theater pays off. Even those on the back row can see every eyebrow raised, double-take taken and finger crooked just so, and there are times that these small details are so delightful, you wish you could hit the replay button and see 'em again.

Benson and Patrick Moran are especially adept at these moves, and it's an amazing and delightful thing to watch. Even with all his facial features hidden behind full black face makeup for his role as Otello, Moran can convey expressions as clearly as a movie star's close-up on a 60-foot screen.

Brian Moran is a master of physical humor, tumbling and rolling and falling like a pro, his owlish eyeglasses and round-eyed innocence firmly in place.

Another delight is Vilardi as Maria, the quintessential Italian wife. This young actor started out as fine performer and only gets better with experience.

In fact, the whole cast seems relaxed and happy to be doing this show, apparently confident that they were in good hands with the director and each other.

The flaws were few on opening night: a couple of hesitant lines, Maggie's mic at a lower volume than the rest of the cast and a lip-synched song that didn't have the heft it needs and is kind of a letdown after all the good stuff that led up to it (hint: reroute a big speaker to the front of the stage and knock us out of our seats for this one song).

Still, the big stuff is right in line, and this is truly one where theatergoers can sit back, relax and enjoy.

>>FAST FACTS

'Tenor' times

Lend Me a Tenor, a farce in two acts, is at 8 p.m. Sept. 16 and 17 and at 2 p.m. Sunday and Sept. 18 at Stage West Community Playhouse, 8390 Forest Oaks Blvd., Spring Hill. Box office is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sept. 17 and an hour before each show. Call (352) 683-5113 or visit stagewest.net.

'Lend Me a Tenor' hits the right notes at Stage West 09/09/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 10, 2011 3:18pm]
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