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It's fluffy and silly, but farcical 'Lend Me a Tenor' is near-perfect

Somewhere on our planet – maybe beyond, who knows? – a production of Ken Ludwig’s run-amok farce, “Lend Me a Tenor” is in rehearsal or already up and running.

The play has remained immensely popular since it bowed in London in 1986. It later moved to Broadway – where then New York Times drama critic Frank Rich dubbed it “painless fluff” – and walked off with a passel of awards.

Thirty countries and translations into 20 languages later, a near-perfect, laugh-out-loud “Lend Me a Tenor” has arrived at the Lancaster Opera House, directed there by Kevin Leary and sporting a cast of wonderful farceurs going full tilt and loving it.

It’s a wild ride. A Cleveland opera company is presenting one of Giuseppe Verdi’s last works, “Otello,” starring a famed Italian tenor, Tito Merilli, also known as “Il Stupendo.” It’s a big deal, careers hinging on its success, the expenses monumental.

Tito arrives tired, maybe hung over, his fondness for the grape to blame.

Mr. Saunders, the promoter, assigns geeky aide Max, a wannabe opera singer, to baby-sit Tito until showtime. Helpful Max suggests some tranquilizers. Well, it could help except the pills are washed down with some Chianti. Tito goes comatose or as Billy Crystal diagnosed in “The Princess Bride,” “mostly dead.” Saunders panics. Max is aghast. Tito is out cold.

Fast-forward: Max goes on in Tito’s place, the opera is boffo. Temporarily, all is well.

“Lend Me a Tenor” then shifts into high gear when Tito wakes, dresses into his costume and readies himself for the night at the opera. Max returns, triumphant. Now, there are two Moors in an apartment with many doors, perfect décor for quick-in-the-closet situations, mistaken identities, chase, subterfuge, seduction, imaginative deceits, double meanings and double takes, romping in rooms jammed with people down to their skivvies. Oh, what havoc little fibs can cause. Innocents and conspirators co-mingle and hilarity reigns.

Director Leary’s work is impressive. Leary lets the outrageous happen naturally – and he has just the right cast to make it seamless, starting with the superbly silly David Bondrow as Max and wily veteran Tom Zindle as frazzled Saunders, partners in crime here, both quick-witted enough to change course in a flash. These two make the night go.

Then there’s burly, side-splitting, larger-than-life Robert Zimmerman as Tito; Marisa Caruso as Tito’s fiery wife; Chrissy Vogric and Emily Yancey, two attractive Tito-worshipping ingénues; Ricky Needham, a zany bellhop; and Priscilla Young-Anker as the starstruck chairperson of the Opera Board. Quite a collection, all on the loose.

Many in the cast have impressive music credits to go with their comic skills, Zimmerman and Bondrow particularly. Leary uses everyone perfectly.

“Lend Me a Tenor” may be “painless fluff” but it is a most welcome treat.

THEATER REVIEW

"Lend Me a Tenor"

4 stars (out of four)

Farce at Lancaster Opera House, 21 Central Ave., Lancaster. Through April 10. Call 683-1776 or go to lancopera.org.

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