If the plot of PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre’s latest production sounds familiar, there’s a reason for that.
“Lend Me a Tenor The Musical” is based on one of the most popular plays of the past 30 years. The sparkling show business comedy, which features music by Brad Carroll and a book and lyrics by Peter Sham, makes its West Coast debut this week in Santa Maria.
“It’s the classic story of a nebbish, bookish young man and how he finds himself through music … and learns to take center stage,” said Paul Marszalowski, music director of “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical.”
Like “Lend Me a Tenor,” “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical” takes place on opening night of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company’s 50th-anniversary season, circa 1934.
General Manager Henry Saunders (Erik Stein) and his assistant, Max Garber (Joe Ogren), are eagerly awaiting the arrival of Tito Merelli (George Walker), the flirtatious Italian tenor known to his legions of fans — including Saunders’ smitten daughter, Maggie (Caroline Whelehan) — as “Il Stupendo.”
Tito is slated to star as the title character in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci” opposite the ambitious ingénue Diana Divane (Karin Hendricks).
But when Tito finally shows up, the singer is in bad shape. Sick and feuding with his wife, Maria (Bree Murphy), Tito unwittingly downs a triple dose of tranquilizers and passes out.
Max assumes the opera star is dead. He resolves to perform in Tito’s place, setting in motion an outrageous series of events involving music, romance and mistaken identities. (Due to its subject matter, the breezy bedroom farce is best suited for ages 12 and up.)
Carroll directs PCPA’s production, which features choreography by Katie Wackowski, sets by Jason Bolen and costumes by Eddy L. Barrows. The rest of the crew includes lighting designer Tim Thistleton and sound designer Elisabeth Weidener.
It’s a feel-good story. There’s toe-tapping music, and it’s just raucously, raucously funny.
Paul Marszalkowski, music director of “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical”
Carroll and Sham came up with the idea of a musical version of “Lend Me a Tenor” more than a decade ago while working at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. The two were searching for a follow-up to 2004’s “A Christmas Carol on the Air,” which re-imagined Charles Dickens’ holiday classic as a live radio broadcast.
Sham, an acquaintance of Ludwig, suggested adapting the playwright’s most popular work.
“‘Lend Me a Tenor’ was too good to pass up just because of the name recognition. … At that point, it was the most produced comedy in North America,” Carroll said.
First presented as a staged reading as part of the Utah Shakespeare Festival’s New American Playwrights Project in 2006, “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical” got the full stage treatment during the festival’s 2007 summer season.
“The Cedar City (Utah) audience went crazy for it,” Carroll recalled. So did theater producers from New York City and beyond.
“Lend Me a Tenor The Musical” eventually headed to England, where it ran in 2011 in London. Although it remains largely unknown in America, Ogren, a San Luis Obispo High School graduate, predicts PCPA’s production will be “the beginning of a long life for the musical in the United States.”
In addition to adding several songs, the musical version of “Lend Me a Tenor” expands the scope of the setting — the action is no longer confined to a single hotel suite, as in Ludwig’s play — and fleshes out the core characters.
“When you add music, there’s an emotional level that gets added to the piece,” Carroll explained.
The musical introduces stage manager Bernie Guter (Matt Koenig) and revises the role of Julia, chairwoman of the Cleveland Opera Guild, to three Opera Guild Ladies (Kitty Balay, Meami Maszewski and Vivian Vaeth) who happen to be Saunders’ ex-wives.
In place of the bellhop, a reoccurring character in Ludwig’s play, there’s a tap-dancing quartet of hotel staff.
Most notably, “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical” changes the opera at the center of the story from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello” to “Pagliacci.” In place of a vengeful Moor, there’s a homicidal clown.
“There’s a long tradition in opera for Otello to be played by a white man wearing dark makeup,” or, blackface, Carroll explained, a practice considered racist. “We’re in a world right now where that doesn’t work anymore — and I’m really glad it doesn’t work anymore.”
“Pagliacci” isn’t the only opera referenced in “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical.” Carroll peppers the hummable score with nods to “La Bohème,” “Madama Butterfly” and the works of Richard Wagner, as well as Great American Songbook stalwarts such as Cole Porter, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin.
“The music is Gershwin meets Verdi,” the composer explained, mixed with “moments that sound like they’re right out of a Warner Brothers cartoon.”
“All that stuff lives in my brain and my soul, so it comes out when I write.”
Stylistically, “Lend Me a Tenor The Musical” “really harkens back to the golden age of movie musicals of the 1920s and ’30s,” Marszalowski said. “It’s a feel-good story. There’s toe-tapping music, and it’s just raucously, raucously funny.”
“We wrote it for people to come to the theater and have a really good time,” Carroll said. “People can come and laugh and laugh, and laugh some more.”