Last night was the first preview of a new musical, Lend Me a Tenor, at the Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. If the name seems familiar, that’s because it previously existed as a knockabout farce of the same name, which had success at the same theatre (then called the Globe) 25 years ago and was recently revived on Broadway.
This new musical version see Ken Ludwig’s original play adapted by Peter Sham (book and lyrics) and Brad Carroll (music) into an evening of riotous comedy, high farce, stirring musical numbers, great tap routines – pretty much your perfect night at a musical.
And that was only the first preview. I can only imagine how it will improve before press night on June 15.
Matthew Kelly plays Henry Saunders, the owner of an opera company in 1930s Cleveland, Ohio who has booked the world’s greatest tenor, Tito Merelli (Michael Matus) to play the title role in Verdi’s Otello. When he arrives, however, his famously difficult wife Maria (Joanna Riding) is in tow, and with the entire company’s female contingent – and Henry’s daughter, Maggie – falling over themselves to meet the charismatic opera star, it seems that Maria’s obsessive jealousy may force matters to a head.
Throw in some anti-stress medication applied a little too liberally, and Tito is out for the count, presumed dead – just as the curtain is due to go up on a performance being attended by the President and his wife. Who could possibly take the place of the ebullient Il Stupendo? Step forward meek geek Max…
It’s a ridiculous setup that becomes more and more bizarre as the evening progresses. At the height of the most farcical moments, you have three characters each dressed as Otello (complete with operatic-style blackface) leaping in and out of rooms, meeting and/or just avoiding each other and with nobody onstage apparently able to distinguish between the trio. It’s a mistaken identity storyline made all the funnier by Matthew Kelly being a good foot taller than the other two.
Along the way, Max (Damian Humbley) overcomes his own inhibitions to grow from a nervous, slightly nasal Jewish musical theatre stereotype into his own man with an operatic voice to rival the greats. Humbley is able to convey that transition vocally from bar to bar in a way that is incredibly effective and not a little moving.
The number which brings the house down, though, is from Sophie-Louise Dann’s Diana DiVane, the opera company’s resident diva. Convinced that Tito will help her move out of Ohio and introduce her to his contacts at the great opera houses around the world, she demonstrates her versatility by racing through pretty much all the most well-known soprano arias in quick succession in the number May I Have a Moment? – which has all the potential to become a popular cabaret number.
The action is paced well throughout, but (at least at this stage in the preview process) the interval doesn’t come until a good 1 hour 30 minutes in, which feels like a long stretch. The second act is about half that and just rockets along. It makes for a bit of an uneven feel to the structure, but somehow it works.
Paul Farnsworth’s set designs, especially for the sumptuous five-star Cleveland Hotel, look superb, as do his costume designs. And it’s so, so nice to hear a traditional, 14-piece pit orchestra in this setting. The music itself is very much in the style of Porter or Berlin, although the musical itself – with references to sexual infidelity, suicidal intentions played for laughs and (admittedly accidental) drug overdoses – is a little more modern than its period feel might otherwise suggest (this is, of course, no bad thing).
As I say, this was just the first preview, and press night is the best part of two weeks away. But it’s a solid, glorious, adorable show – and one which, I have to say, has ensured that Betty Blue Eyes will be out of the running for many a ‘best new musical’ prize in the year to come…