In an era when we covet the latest technological advances, the West End musical is going all retro. First Betty Blues Eyes took us back to austerity Britain and now Lend Me A Tenor arrives into town from Plymouth with a glorious homage to the golden age of MGM musicals.
The show itself, with book and lyrics by Peter Sham and music by Brad Carroll may be new but in tone it feels very traditional, with nods to both classic musicals and opera.
The Cleveland Opera House is pinning its hopes, and ailing finances, on an appearance of star Tenor Tito Mirelli. Mirelli has a reputation as one of opera’s biggest stars but also one of opera’s biggest womanisers, something wife Maria isn’t too happy about.
Opera manager Henry Saunders is pinning all his hopes on Tito but long suffering aide, opera prompter Max has dreams himself about taking to the opera stage, if only he can cure his chronic nerves and shyness. When the opera supremo is disposed who could step into the limelight and save the show.
In honour of its operatic backdrop Carrol’s score is lavish and melodic, a delightful mix of comic numbers and pathos filled arias. There are plenty of nods to the classic MGM musicals of the 1940s and even a wry knowing wink to Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. This is no tribute clip show, though, numbers work well to serve the action and give a sense of period charm. Maria’s lament over her husbands philandering The Last Time is an instant classic while duet between Tito and Max – Be Yourself will surely become a standard for musical theatre performers.
The rich variety in range in the score places real demands of the vocal abilities of the company but director Ian Talbot has assembled a strong cast who deliver with gusto.
Joanna Riding joins the original Plymouth company fresh from her role in previous Gielgud occupant The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Although Maria only appears briefly in the show, the rendition of the aforementioned Last Time proves to be one of the highlights of the evening. As her sparring partner and husband, Michael Matus turns in a fine performance as opera star Tito.Riding; Matus’s duet Facciamo L’Amour, complete with surtitles, is a wonderful pastiche of both grand opera and also the bygone age of silent film.
Matthew Kelly’s performance as manager Saunders is a fine example of madcap comic timing, although, in the sung vocal numbers he is perhaps underplayed.
Performance of the evening, however is Damian Humbley’s Max. His transformation from mild mannered Max into an operatic star is impressive, vocally rousing as he discovers his powerful voice. It is a mesmerising performance as Max transformed, Clark Kent-like from wimp to master of all he surveys.
Ian Talbot directs with pace and flair, building up the characters nicely in Act One before the show takes a turn toward farce in the madcap second act. He also makes great use of Paul Farnsworth’s lavish, gilt laden set. Much has been made of the fact the production used every scrap of gold leaf in the country and it shows. What in many ways resembles a traditional touring box set turns and unfolds to provide a sumptuous backdrop full of elegance and grace.
Lend Me a Tenor may have a bygone feel to it but it’s a homage that isn’t afraid to poke fun at its classical predecessors. Opera buffs will revel in the reference to Puccini, Wagner and Bizet; musical theatre fans will delight in nods to such classics as 42nd Street and Kiss Me Kate, while newcomers will just enjoy the well-conceived comedy, lavish staging and evocative score.
Whether such an unashamedly old-fashioned show can work in the harsh realties of modern day Shaftesbury Avenue remains to be seen but one would be surprised if Lend Me A Tenor isn’t among the front runners when the musical of the year awards are fought over this year.
Disclaimer – this review is of a preview performance (June 4th). Press Night is June 15th.
Photo: Original Plymouth Company of Lend Me A Tenor – photo by James Bullimore