By Jim Rutter
For THE INQUIRER
On a long enough timeline, every theatre in the country will stage Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor. Like Michael Frayn's Noises Off, Ludwig's farce fills the stalls with patrons wanting a laugh and willing to pay for it.
However, the perfect casting at Ambler's Act II Playhouse elevates their production far above the mid-season filler meant for middle America.
Ludwig's comedy, about the mishaps surrounding an Italian operatic superstar giving a concert in Cleveland doesn't require stellar voices for the evening's sole musical number (I've seen actors lip sync this passage). So it seems a waste to cast Jeff Coon—one of Philly's most prominent musical theatre peformers—as Tito Merelli, even though in just one song, he and Michael Doherty (as Max, the backstage gopher with an underapprecaited vocal talent) thrill with their delivery of a Verdi aria.
But its in the comedy that Doherty and Coon, along with Tony Braithwaite (and the adorable Eileen Cella as Maggie) create the comedic center of this production. Doherty ambles about through exaggerated expressions and gestures (knocking his knees as he "limbers up" to sing), Braithwaite's sublimates his signature shtick into a manic, fiery performance as the belaugered producer Saunders, and Coon lumbers across the stage, punctuating his pepperoni pronunciations with wild mannerisms.
For two hours, this trio trips and clowns across Dirk Durosette's fabulous Art Deco hotel suite (replete with gorgeous, shimmering wall inset murals). Their knack for physical comedy transforms the lighthearted jokes, Italianate innuendo and backstage banter into a fantastical farce that delights in its own sense of abandon.
As Bud Martin's surefire direction snaps from one improbable situation to the next, the cast's quick timing convinces that all coincidence, mistaken identity and found affection not only could actually happen, but would follow, if only of necessity.
The special joy in seeing Act II's production lies in this mix of comic and earnestness, and its juxtaposition of skill from Braithwaite, a local comedic star in the full of his prime, and Doherty, a recent UArts grad in the ascent of his promise.
You can see Lend Me a Tenor anywhere. Philadelphia theatre fans can only hope to see these three talents team up again.