It's probably safe to say that no one alive now can remember when the Cleveland Play House began producing shows, since that happened exactly 100 years ago. In some places around the world, a century isn't that long a time, historically speaking. But to keep an arts organization alive that long here in the United States, the land of disposable culture, is an accomplishment of enormous proportions.
So now, as we begin the 2015-16 season of the performing arts here in Cleveland, it is time to doff our collective chapeaus to our treasure, the Cleveland Play House, as well as to the Cleveland Orchestra and Karamu House, all of which are at or close to their first three-digit anniversaries.
And let's include a round of applause for the citizens and corporations (no, not the same thing) of Cleveland and Northeast Ohio, who have gobbled up enough tickets and provided financial support in other ways to keep these vibrant institutions alive and, for the most part, thriving.
On a personal note, my memories of the Cleveland Play House extend back to the 1960s, when my brother William was a member of their company for two years. At that time, I attended many shows and was dazzled by the talents of actors such as Richard Halverson, Evie McElroy, Bob Moak and Dorothy Paxton — under the artistic direction of luminaries such as K. Elmo Lowe and Richard Oberlin.
This is such a glorious time for CPH that one is tempted to look through rose-colored glasses at the productions they will be mounting this season. After all, nobody wants to butt-plant on somebody else's birthday cake. That said, the opening play of this double-gold anniversary season at the Cleveland Play House is a thoroughly professional yet almost entirely vapid endeavor. It's dubbed Ken Ludwig's A Comedy of Tenors, and the title alone signals a problem.
When the name of the playwright is appended to a title, a world premiere no less, it indicates that the playwright views himself as a franchise. And indeed he is, with many of his plays running continually at regional and community theaters around the country. But very often, franchises gain their power by repeatedly cranking out similar, middling-quality stuff that customers happily wolf down.
Such is the case with this show, which is a not very inventive rehashing of the characters from Ludwig's popular Lend Me a Tenor, which has been around for more than 20 years. Set in another luxe hotel, this time in Paris (not in Cleveland, as the former play was), the three tenors, including Tito (Bradley Dean) whose nickname is "Il Stupendo," are facing a huge concert. Almost immediately, the script piles multiple mistaken identities on a withering barrage of junior high sex jokes, fairly obvious double entendres and one over-used prop gag. Eventually, the mind reels.
Sure, it's meant to be a sex farce, but sex without wit or invention is about as engrossing as a quickie hand-job in an elevator. Sure, there are plenty of laughs, because we're human beings and sex jokes — even old or clumsy ones — titillate. And sure, mistaken identities are fun. But this is all very easy and safe territory for a playwright, especially when you're injecting familiar punch lines into a plot displaying all the subtlety of an I Love Lucy episode.
On the plus side, Ludwig's unchallenging farce is staged with complete professionalism by CPH on Charlie Corcoran's handsome set, replete with many doors that slam with convincing solidity. And the cast, under the precisely honed direction of Stephen Wadsworth, delivers the lines with spot-on timing. There are a couple genuine laugh-out-loud moments, such as when Kristen Martin as Mimi does a fine pratfall over a balcony railing and when she and her lover Carlo (Bobby Conte Thornton) are revealed under a sheet early in the play.
True to the Tenor franchise, there is some passably good operatic singing from the trio of Thornton, Dean and Rob McClure, who plays the nebbishy son-in-law of the impresario Henry Saunders (Ron Orbach).
In the central role of Tito, Dean never quite captures the larger-than-life egomaniacal core of his character. And when he does double duty as the bellhop Beppo who is (OMG!) a dead ringer for Tito, Dean doesn't create a distinct enough character, dampening the comical chemistry. Also, we don't often feel the rampant sexual urge that's driving Beppo as he pursues both Tito's wife Maria (a spirited Antoinette LaVecchia) and the Russian soprano Tatiana (Lisa Brescia). Where's Groucho Marx when you need him?
Let's face it, when you have to rely on a semi-disgusting deli item for many of your laughs — a hunk of tongue is repeatedly manipulated both manually (don't ask) and verbally ("Hey baby, want some tongue?") — you have an issue. There's a reason most of us find a tongue sandwich hard to order, and why formula comedies such as Ken Ludwig's A Comedy of Tenors are hard to swallow.