MILLBURN, NJ – Take one womanizing opera singer, knock him out in a hotel room, add a jealous wife, a scheming impersonator, a hilariously ambitious bellhop, and toss in some people running around in their underwear, getting drunk, screaming and slamming doors, and you have the recipe for a rollicking good evening of theater.
“Lend Me a Tenor,” a comedy written by Ken Ludwig, opens at Paper Mill Playhouse Wednesday, Feb. 13 and runs through March 10. It tells the story of a renowned tenor, Tito Merelli, who is scheduled to star in “Otello,” but things unravel – and fast – before he even has the chance to leave his hotel room.
Director Don Stephenson said “Lend Me a Tenor” is “just one of those shows.”
“I really love it,” he said, during a recent break from rehearsals in New York. “The more I work on it, the more I love it. I think it’s one of the greatest farces ever written.”
Part of what makes it fun is the fact that it’s about just normal people, he said – the kind of people everyone can identify with.
“I was telling the cast that with all the bad news that happens in the world, just bad after bad, I think a show like this is great,” Stephenson said. “Let the people come to Paper Mill and see the show, let them sit there and laugh their heads off. A lot of times a good laugh is hard to come by. I’m not out there saving lives or digging ditches, I can’t do anything about the price of gas, but if I can give someone a couple of hours of laughs, I’m happy.”
And there is no shortage of laughs in this show, which was produced in London and New York in the 80s, was nominated for nine Tony Awards, won three Drama Desk Awards, nabbed the Olivier Award for Best Comedy of the Year, and enjoyed a Broadway revival in 2010.
The plot revolves around the renowned tenor, better known as “Il Stupendo,” who is scheduled to sing the lead in the opera “Otello.” Chaos ensues when his wife mistakenly leaves him a “Dear John” letter and the distraught singer is accidentally given a double dose of tranquilizers. What follows is a laugh-out-loud chain reaction of mistaken identity, farcical plot twists, double entendres, and musical mayhem.
This production includes Broadway stars and Paper Mill Playhouse favorites including Judith Blazer (Maria), John Treacy Egan (Tito), Donna English (Diana), Nancy Johnston (Julia), David Josefsberg (Max), Michael Kostroff (Saunders), Jill Paice (Maggie) and Mark Price (Bellhop).
The show’s magic, Stephenson explains, is in its timing. Like any farce, it’s about the rhythm, the lines, the pauses.
“It’s my job as the director to sort of shape that rhythm and make sure that everyone is working together,” he said. “Fortunately, we have a wonderful cast who are all really close friends and with whom I’ve worked over the years. I know them, and I know they’re funny in the right way. We have a collective sense of humor, and it comes through. Every one of these actors can come up and swing the bat and hit it out of the park every time.”
The ability of an actor to be truly funny is a skill, Stephenson said. Some have it, and some don’t.
“There are some actors who are funny, and some who aren’t,” he explained. “That doesn’t mean that the ones who aren’t funny aren’t good actors, but there’s something about an actor who can do comedy. It’s just in them, it’s how they see they world. These actors have it, and this play requires it.”
“Lend Me a Tenor” is Stephenson’s first time to direct at Paper Mill Playhouse, but he’s not new to its stage. He starred as John Adams in “1776” and said he’s excited to be back.
“I love Millburn and I love this theater,” he said. “It’s like having this Broadway theater right in the middle of the town. When I look back, doing ‘1776’ was one of my favorite experiences. The audience was so into it, and everyone worked hard to deliver a great product. That’s one of the things I like most about the Paper Mill – everyone takes such pride in what they do. They want to give their best to the audience, and Paper Mill audiences have a cultured palate. They know what’s good. It was truly one of the highlights of my career.”
“Lend Me a Tenor” will be performed eight times a week, Wednesday through Sunday. For a performance schedule and tickets, call 973-376-4343, at the Paper Mill Playhouse Box Office at 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn, or online at www.papermill.org.