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There is a lot of Very Important Art being produced right now. Almost every week boasts a play or movie or book or song that responds to the current political climate or myriad global events, whether literally, thematically, or metaphorically. And I’m here for it. But at the same time, it was so refreshing to go to Walnut Street Theatre’s production of A Comedy of Tenors and just laugh.
There’s nothing intellectual or provocative about the play. And as I sat in the back row of the storied Center City theater, I felt exactly zero objections to that.
A Comedy of Tenors is set in a Parisian hotel room sometime in the late 1940s. Saunders (Scott Greer), the former mayor of Cleveland, Ohio, and the current producer of a very ambitious concert featuring three of the world’s top tenors, wants everything to be perfect before the famous Tito Merelli (Frank Ferrante, who also directs) and his wife Maria (Karen Peakes) arrive. With the help of his former assistant, Max (Ben Dibble), now not only Saunders’s son-in-law but also one of the three tenors set to perform that evening, Saunders sets about making sure everything is perfect and everyone is happy.
But A Comedy of Tenors is a farce, so naturally, things start going wrong almost from the beginning. Women’s undergarments are strewn about. The third tenor has to quit the show just hours before curtain. And Tito and Maria’s adult daughter, Mimi (Alanna J. Smith), is dating Tito’s musical rival, the much younger Carlo Nunzi (Jacob Tischler). Making matters worse, Tito is convinced that it’s Maria who is in love with Carlo.
None of this is really a spoiler — this is a farce, after all. We don’t go to farces because we’re looking for a plot that’s inventive or shocking. We don’t go to learn more about the human condition or to appreciate some searing cultural commentary. We go to laugh. And that’s okay.
A successful farce rests on two things: a funny script and a great group of actors to perform it. Ken Ludwig has written two dozen plays, almost all of them comedic, so it’s no wonder the script is full of laughs. But the actors still have to deliver. Fortunately, they do at the Walnut.
I’m usually skeptical of directors who cast themselves in lead roles, but Ferrante manages to pull both off brilliantly. Hilarity in farces often hinges on the timing of closing doors and the precise positioning of actors — things you can’t half-ass in the staging and rehearsing of a show, and things that are especially hard to nail if you’re directing from the stage instead of the house. But Ferrante and the rest of the cast hit their marks every single time. The directorial success makes his over-the-top performance of the mercurial Tito all the more satisfying.
Humor, passion, swagger, Shakespeare
Peakes’s Maria serves as the perfect foil to Tito, full of acerbic humor and stereotypical Italian passion. As Carlo, Tischler looks the part of Mario Lanza and so many other young New World tenors of the mid-20th century, and he performs with the same combination of boy-next-door charm and subtle swagger that defined that class of performers. (I could totally see what Smith’s Mimi — who gets one of the biggest laughs in the play toward the end of the second act — sees in him.) Greer and Dibble are predictably hilarious (both are accomplished actors in serious roles, but I think they’re best when they’re allowed to be funny), and Dreya Weber, in the small but memorable role of Russian diva Tatiana Racón, helps both complicate and untangle the plot’s suspected love triangle.
There is, of course, one more character whom I didn't mention here and who isn’t mentioned in the playbill. I won’t spoil the play by saying anything more than that… although if you’re familiar with the Shakespearean play that inspired the play's title, you might be able to figure it out.
There’s a place for Very Important Art — and, thanks to the Walnut this winter, a place for simply enjoying yourself.
What, When, Where
A Comedy of Tenors. By Ken Ludwig, Frank Ferrante directed. Through March 3, 2019, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. (215) 574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.
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