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In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Rick Pendzich (left) and Steven M. Koehler star in "Lend Me a Tenor," now at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. (PHOTO: Mark Frohna)

Chamber's "Lend Me a Tenor" needs a higher interest rate

Everybody wants Tito Morelli except his wife, and she's ambivalent about the whole thing.

It's those burning desires from six wacky characters that are at the heart of "Lend Me a Tenor," the Ken Ludwig chestnut that opened at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre Friday night and runs through April 27.

Set in 1934, Morelli (Steven M. Koehler) is a world famous tenor known as El Stupendo who arrives at the Cleveland Opera House to play Othello in a benefit for the company.

As is true in every farce, Morelli's visit is the springboard for all of the crucial elements – anticipation, disaster, relief, more disaster, temporary recovery, horrible complications and then a major major disaster that seems like a tsunami.

Before we get to the particulars, we need the rest of the lineup.

Maria (Rana Roman) is Morelli's mercurial wife, who loves him and despises him – sometimes in the same sentence.

Saunders (Drew Brhel) is the artistic director of the opera company, and this is his big chance at making Cleveland big time.

Meanwhile, Saunders' daughter Maggie (Hannah Klapperich-Mueller) is totally in love with Morelli and is ready to give it up for the first time in her life for the Italian heartthrob.

Rick Pendzich, maybe the busiest actor in Milwaukee this season, plays Max, the factotum for Saunders and the company. He's in love with Maggie and harbors his own ambition to be an operatic tenor.

Diana (Alexandra Bonesho) is the diva soprano who will sing Desdemona, and is willing and eager to use all of her wiles to wrangle Morelli into helping her get to New York.

Julia (Linda C. Loving), the chair of the opera board, is delusional about her sex appeal and is willing to offer herself to Morelli, who not-so-kindly refuses.

At the same time, The Bellhop (Peter Sisto) sings a little and is a slave to the idea of meeting Morelli and, gasp, actually getting a picture of the great man.

As a famous radio guy once said, "And now, the rest of the story." Pay attention.

It starts when Morelli doesn't show up when expected. He finally does, but his wife gets mad because she thinks he's playing around – again. She writes a note and leaves.

Max gives Morelli way too many sleeping pills, and when it gets to be time to wake the star, the star won't wake up. Max reads the note from Maria, but thinks Morelli wrote it and then killed himself.

Max tells Saunders that Morelli is dead, giving Saunders a glimpse at the end of his world. However, they decide to dress Max as Othello, complete with Morelli's costume, blackface and horrible wig, and the opera is performed. After all, the show must go on.

Meanwhile, the real Morelli wakes up from his drugged sleep and what follows is a madcap mix of slamming doors, mistaken identities, successful seductions, crazy characters and happy endings.

"Lend Me a Tenor" has been performed countless times around the world since its birth in 1986. It's a guaranteed crowd pleaser. But I came away wondering about the play itself. The production was outstanding, but the play left some things to be desired.

The funniest moments in the play oddly seemed to be when nobody was talking. Pendzich, Brhel, Roman and Koehler have impeccable comic timing and can say more with a glance, a grimace or a tilted head than many actors can with a full page of dialogue.

Each of them can wring everything possible out of each pause and break in the script.

They are funnier than the play, and never is that more obvious than with some of the other characters, notably some of the women. Simply put, the lines they have to say just aren't very funny.

Klapperich-Mueller and Sisto are both students at Marquette, so you have to cut them a little slack. They will both learn that more is not necessarily better as their careers continue forward.

Bonesho plays the siren soprano for all its worth; it's just not worth that much. She seems entirely one-dimensional, and while Bonesho is obviously trying to find some depth, there's not much to be found.

Perhaps the most egregious example of trying to make something out of very little is Loving and her opera board chair character.

Her character seems almost superfluous and was better in the early going when Saunders spoke to her on the phone, but we never actually heard her.

Once she came on stage, I found myself wondering how she'd fit into this menagerie while Loving tried to drive her character home with a sledgehammer. Loving tries to make something funny out of what is basically an unfunny character by making her big. BIG big. But it just doesn't work.

The fortunate thing is that the actors – namely Pendzich, Brhel, Roman and Koehler – are so funny themselves that you almost forget that the ship they are sailing has too many holes.


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