CLEARWATER — In case you didn't know what you were getting into seeing Lend Me a Tenor, a well-traveled farce that opened last weekend at Hat Trick Theatre, the six doors on the set should spell it out.
This is going to be wall-to-wall hilarity and hijinks, so be ready. Ken Ludwig's complicated play is also difficult to pull off, so hats off to Ruth Eckerd Hall's resident theater company for giving it their all. Fortunately, praise for this show doesn't stop there. Even if mistaken identities, mildly racy bedroom situations and absurd situations aren't your thing, director Jack Holloway and the cast have succeeded where the options for failure are vastly more numerous or even likely.
Set in 1934 Chicago, the play centers on a feverishly frantic opera producer, Henry Saunders (played by Brian Shea, who does feverishly frantic quite well), anxiously awaiting the high profile opening of Othello, and its star, world-famous tenor Tito Merelli (Maxx Janeda, who specializes in cutely confused).
In background lurks the Saunders' hapless assistant Max (Jamie Jones), and daughter Maggie (Brianna Larson), who can't quite commit to marrying Max.
Three more women and a starstruck bellhop will vie for Tito's attention — all of whom will at one point or another be deceived about who Tito really is (more on that later) — before the show is over. Men will hide under beds and women in closets. Doors will slam.
The question is, after meticulously packing a lengthy barrel of wrapping paper with gunpowder in the first act and then lighting the fuse, will the explosion happen? Give Hat Trick credit. It does. Success means making unbelievable events believable, which is why farce is such a high bar to clear, also perhaps why so many actors can't resist trying.
The major plot wrinkle happens when Tito ends up taking too many sedatives and passes out. That puts Henry in a major bind, since the curtain for his opera's 10th anniversary show goes up in a few hours. Believing Tito to be dead, Henry induces Max, who he knows can sing a little, into pretending to be Tito and assuming his role on stage.
Tito will eventually wake up, but not before Max delivers a killer performance as Othello, blowing away the crowd and transforming attitudes. Women adore his confident artistry and Italian accent. Even Maggie finds an attraction she could not manage for Max, something Max doesn't seem to mind. Resolution requires at least a couple dozen instances of mistaken identity and people plunging through doors with split-second timing.
The linchpin of the production is Jamie Jones, simply because he is on stage most of the time as Max or Tito. Jones draws quite a sharp line of demarcation between the two characters, which makes the transformation both believable and riveting. Other performances of note include Erica Garraffa as the ambitiously sultry ingenue soprano in the production and Roz Potenza as Julia, the delightfully jaded chairwoman of the opera guild.
While this show milks all of the silliness out of the script is can muster, its strength is that it knows where to stop and simply let these madcap events unfold. It's an exhausting ride, but that's the point. The ending is a winking recap of the entire play on fast forward (like 32 times normal speed), just to remind everyone of everything that has happened. The reminder helps, as does the subtle thank you embedded in this self-satirizing epilogue to the audience members, who have agreed go along for this crazy ride.
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.