'Tenor' always good for a few laughs

There's no getting around it: The only farce with staying power written in the last 25 years is Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor," an artfully constructed madcap romp that even critics find difficult to resist.

This show has been staged in Kansas City a number of times, but the current New Theatre production shows us that "Tenor" is still good for some belly laughs, even after repeated viewings.

Director Joe Fox has surrounded guest star Jamie Farr with a strong cast, including Broadway veteran Ken Krugman and talented Kansas City-based actors. If the Thursday-night performance didn't crackle quite as much as I'd prefer, it nevertheless delivered its share of memorable comic moments.

Set in 1934, the story centers around a production of 'Otello' by the Cleveland Grand Opera, at which internationally renowned tenor Tito Merelli will perform the title role. When Tito (Krugman) and his wife Maria (Jill Szoo) arrive at their hotel suite, he announces that he will skip the afternoon rehearsal because, after eating two lunches, he doesn't feel well.

Henry Saunders (Farr), the company manager, is understandably concerned about Tito's reliability and orders his young flunky Max (Todd Carlton Lanker) to keep a close eye on the great singer.

Like all farces, the plot pivots on misunderstandings and mistaken identity.

Maria finds Maggie (Ashlee LaPine), Saunders' daughter, hiding in a closet, assumes the Tito is having a fling, and leaves in a huff. Later, Tito inadvertently takes too many sleeping pills and conks out; when Max finds the farewell note left by Maria, he believes it to be a suicide note left by Tito.

Believing Tito is dead, Saunders talks Max, an aspiring singer, into putting on Tito's Otello costume to stand in for the comatose opera star. But eventually Tito wakes up, puts on a second costume and leaves for the theater.

Soon we have two Otellos running in and out of doors, each pursued by women -- Maggie, who has worshipped the singer's recordings, and Diana (Jan Chapman), a libidinous soprano who wants a fling with Il Stupendo.

Complicating matters is the recurring presence of the Bellhop (Phillip Russell Newman), a persistent gnat intent on getting the great singer's autograph, and Julia (Marilyn Lynch), the opera board's chairman, who has her own carnal designs on Tito.

Farr, as you would expect, exhibits impeccable timing in his exchanges with Lanker, who delivers a quirky, well-conceived performance as the nebbishy Max. Krugman threatens to steal the show with his inspired turn as Tito. Newman's high-energy performance as the Bellhop is consistently amusing.

LaPine is a lovely presence who sometimes defies expectations with unexpected comic flourishes, while Chapman and Lynch offer beautifully executed supporting performances. Szoo has some nice moments, although her Italian accent tends to come and go.

Mary Traylor's imaginative costumes are easy on the eyes while Paul Joseph Barnett's physically handsome scenic design serves the action well. Other technical credits are equally polished.

"Lend Me a Tenor" runs through April 3 at the New Theatre. Call 913-649-7469 or go to www.newtheatre.com.