Lend Me a TenorThis is why I love live theatre.

In the Clinton Area Showboat Theatre's production of Ken Ludwig's Lend Me a Tenor, Will Morgan plays Tito Merelli, an egocentric and wildly passionate Italian opera star. Late in Act I, the character discovers that his equally tempestuous wife is leaving him. Merelli subsequently launches into a fit of hysterically inconsolable grief, and on Thursday night, Morgan wailed and moaned with peerless comic abandon.

Yet at the very moment the actor began his tirade, there was an enormous thunderclap, and the evening's rainstorm - which had been percolating for an hour - significantly grew in intensity. For three minutes, the squall outside seemed to echo the personal tsunami that Morgan was enacting on-stage, until finally, with Joshua Estrada's hapless nebbish Max calming him, Morgan's Merelli collapsed on the bed, devastated and exhausted.

And outside, as if on cue, the storm began to subside.

It was a sequence of perfect theatrical synchronicity. (The Lend Me a Tenor program should have credited: "Sound effects by God.") But what amazed me even more than the weather's timing was its futility; here Morgan was, battling for the audience's attention against thunder and a violently loud downpour on the Showboat roof, and I'm pretty sure the actor won. Morgan's laugh-'til-you-cry portrayal is a maelstrom of energy and confidence and invention, and in director Craig A. Miller's marvelous, door-slamming farce, it's far from the only one on display.

Ludwig's Tenor is one of those cleverly constructed, unashamedly contrived contraptions that would completely fall apart without directorial precision and impeccable timing. Yet from its first scenes, it's clear that not only will Miller lend the proceedings considerable wit and finesse, but that he's surrounded himself with some positively topnotch farcical performers.

Morgan is so over-the-top funny, especially in that Act I breakdown, that he could easily steamroll over a lesser actor. Joshua Estrada, though, is not a lesser actor; from the evidence here, here's a fantastically fine one. Initially, Max appears so meek and mild that he seems on the verge of vanishing, but Estrada himself is buoyantly assured, and by the time Max is forced into a full-scale Merelli impersonation, there's no mistaking the actor's control or - considering his sharp comic timing and rich singing voice - his talent.

As Merelli's wife, Alison Nicole Luff shrieks heavily-accented epithets and never wilts against Morgan's bellowing; she matches her co-star laugh for laugh. Jennifer Gilbert enters her scenes with such spectacular comic confidence, purrs her lines with such suggestive playfulness, and looks so ravishing in Sonia Elizabeth Lerner's costumes that you can barely take your eyes off her. I heard an audible, happy murmur in the crowd when Showboat veteran Nicole Horton first appeared, and I was pretty damned happy, too; as usual, the actress is a splendidly subtle, polished comedienne. And Kay Ann Allmand is both hysterical and wholly believable as Max's seemingly prim, secretly lascivious sweetheart; her attempts at seduction - which lead to a series of incredibly awkward poses - are dementedly original, and unfailingly funny.

Thursday's only real disappointment was Mark X. Laskowski as the dyspeptic theatre manager Saunders, as the actor tripped over too many lines to develop a satisfying rhythm. (Dialogue that should have elicited belly laughs received polite chuckles instead.) But his virulent spit-takes, in particular, were beautifully timed, and Steven Piechocki provided good-natured mugging as a hotel bellhop.

Miller helms Lend Me a Tenor's escalating hysteria with dynamic inventiveness - Act I's capper is classic - yet he and Ludwig save their greatest inspiration for the finale: A dialogue-free, musically-accompanied reenactment of the entire show in just under three minutes. It's a jaw-droppingly hilarious conclusion, but incredibly, no more hilarious than the two-hour version that precedes it.


For tickets, call (563) 242-6760.

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