A Comedy of Tenors is a sequel to the broad comedy Lend Me a Tenor, both by Ken Ludwig. The play takes place in Paris in 1936. Producer Henry Saunders (Michael Kostroff) is facing a series of unexpected obstacles that threaten the greatest concert in the history of opera featuring three tenors — Swedish opera star Jussi Bjorling, Saunders’ assistant-turned-opera singer Max (David Josefsberg), and the legendary Tito Merelli (John Treacy Egan). But with a mere three hours before curtain, Tito is nowhere to be found and Bjorling cancels. When Tito does ultimately arrive, he, wife Maria (Judy Blazer), daughter Mimi (Jill Paice), and the young and handsome tenor Carlo Nucci (Ryan Silverman) are thrown into a whirlwind of misadventures.
The success of a broad farce like A Comedy of Tenors depends on exaggeration, coincidence, overheard conversations, mistaken identities, misunderstandings, emotional histrionics, and lots of doors for perfectly timed entrances and exits. They’re all here and do their job admirably, for a wild ride filled with unfounded jealousies, passions, and huge egos.
As Tito, Mr. Egan makes a star’s entrance. We hear a lot about him before he sets foot on stage and when he does, he seems larger than life as he enters with the swagger and self-assurance reserved for a megastar. Though Saunders is nearly apoplectic as the start of the concert nears, Tito is calm, realizing the crowds will gladly wait for him to make his anticipated appearance.
Maria, his wife of many years, is his personal cheerleader, constantly reassuring him of his talent and dismissing his concerns about getting old and being displaced by newer talent. Tito is especially jealous of young, up-and-coming tenor Carlo Nucci, who has become the fair-haired boy of opera, attracting female fans the way Tito once did.
When Maria discovers daughter Mimi and boyfriend Carlo partly dressed, she is sympathetic. After Mimi leaves and Maria is alone with Carlo, Tito overhears their conversation, becomes convinced Maria is having an affair with the young man, and storms out. The plot takes another turn for the absurd when a bellhop who happens to be the mirror image of Tito appears at the door, singing to himself in a glorious operatic tenor.Further complications ensue when a former love interest of Tito, the Russian soprano Racon (Donna English), appears.
Mr. Egan is an excellent comic actor as well as opera singer. He knows when to deliver a line without flourish to get a laugh and when to overplay. He also has a few opportunities to engage in slapstick, though he’s not as adept at physical comedy. Playing the dual role of Tito and Beppo, the bellhop, requires him to make quick costume changes and raise the pitch of his speaking voice for Beppo. A large man, Egan is the physical stereotype of opera singers of an earlier era. He carries himself gracefully and always seems ready to take a bow, even when in normal conversation. Egan’s attention to the fine details help to make his portrayal a delight.
Ms. Blazer’s Maria is a fiery personality complete with an Italian accent and passion to spare. Short of stature, she nonetheless commands the stage. We believe she is deeply in love with Tito, a fact that is important or the plot would collapse like a house of cards. Her performance is by turns broad and intimate, and she gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Carlo is what was once referred to as the “juvenile lead.” Pleasant, likable, and a bit of a preening peacock, Carlo figures importantly in the intricate confusions that occur. Mr. Silverman is especially effective when Carlo is thrust into the midst of chaos.
While all of these machinations are taking place, poor Saunders is going through conniptions as his visions of a once-in-a-lifetime concert begin to turn to disaster. Mr. Josefsberg twists, clenches fists, squirms, screams, and postures dramatically at each new wrinkle, but never properly milks the potential of the role. This role calls for barely controlled exasperation, the kind movie character actor Edward Everett Horton used to play so effortlessly.
In a pleasant break from the mayhem in Act I, Egan, Josefsberg and Silverman perform “The Drinking Song” from “La Traviata” — no gags, no pratfalls, no distractions — and they are terrific. The song shows us that the three tenors of the play actually possess the goods.
A Comedy of Tenors will run through February 26 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey. Performances are Wednesdays at 7:30 P.M., Thursdays at 1:30 and 7:30 P.M., Fridays at 8 P.M., Saturdays at 1:30 and 8 P.M., and Sundays at 1:30 and 7 P.M. Tickets start at $28 and may be purchased by calling (973) 376-4343, online at PaperMill.org, or at the Paper Mill Playhouse box office, 22 Brookside Drive in Millburn.