SALT LAKE CITY — Lightning, as they say, never strikes the same place twice. This old (and highly inaccurate) saying was coined to say how unlikely it is that an extraordinary event would take place twice in the same way. Ken Ludwig’s play Lend Me a Tenor is well established as a comedic theatrical classic, a farce on par with Noises Off, A Flea in Her Ear, and Charlie’s Aunt. Ludwig later wrote A Comedy of Tenors, a sequel to Lend Me a Tenor. Sequels to great theatrical shows have a bit of a sketchy history (just think of Bring Back Birdie, Annie Warbucks, and Love Never Dies). Most sequels you’ve probably never heard of, and for good reason: They’re not nearly as good or successful as the original. Thankfully, A Comedy of Tenors is the exception to the rule.
A Comedy of Tenors includes many of the same characters from Lend Me a Tenor, with a couple of new additions. Several years have passed, and Henry Saunders, the impresario of the Cleveland Opera, is putting together the greatest concert in history: the Three Tenors, starring Tito Merelli, Jussi Bjorling, and Max, in Paris. Tito is late and Jussi is leaving because his mother has died, and they need to find another tenor to fill out the bill. Enter Carlo Nucci, who—unknown to Tito—is in love with Tito’s daughter, Mimi. Add to that Tito’s wife Maria, the Russian soprano Tatiana Racon—who had a brief affair with Tito—and the bellhop Beppo (a dead ringer for Tito), and Ludwig has a night of misunderstandings and hilarity in store.
Director Wes Grantom clearly understands the rigors of creating excellent farce. The timing of the entrances and exits, the door slamming and near misses are all perfect. However, the Pioneer stage is so wide that it made the cross-stage crosses seem a little less than swift at times. But that is a small criticism. The pace is lively throughout and the characters well defined.
Gregory North deserves particular praise. Portraying multiple characters in a show is never an easy task, but doing so in a farce with those characters barely missing each other and entering from opposite sides of the stage in different costumes makes for one of the greatest experiences as an audience member: how will they do it? Kudos for this has to go to the backstage team of dressers facilitating the quick changes and to costume designer Susan Branch Towne who created very elegant and classic designs for this show. Jennifer Cody as Maria was also a stand out as she captured the loving frustration of a celebrity spouse. Additionally, Cody’s reactions and timing were impeccable. Not a movement or action was wasted energy, and she was captivating in every moment she was on stage.
In reality, there is not a weak actor in this cast. A farce like this requires a strong cast and this cast certainly exceeds that expectation. I was particularly impressed with the singing quality of the three tenors. The “Brindisi” from La Traviata is not a particularly easy piece to sing, and the three of them, Gregory North, Hansel Tan, and Storm Lineberger handled the piece with great skill.
Yet, there is one glaring problem with this production is not a fault of Pioneer Theater Company, the director, the cast or any of the production staff. Quite simply, A Comedy of Tenors is not quite as raucous or frantic as its predecessor. Ludwig certainly has a good knowledge of the opera world and understands how opera stars act. (Several moments reminded me of many of my experiences with the Utah Opera Chorus.) But the frantic antics and desperation in this show don’t quite live up to the brilliance of Lend Me a Tenor, a problem because comparisons of the two shows are inevitable.
But that is a small critique, and it will not stop audience members from enjoying this show in its own right. A Comedy of Tenors is one of the most enjoyable nights out at the theater I have had in a long time, and I have no doubt that we will be seeing productions of it cropping up in many local theaters soon.