Director Frank Minano has a marked affinity for Ken Ludwig’s works – and for the farce genre that is the playwright’s specialty.
By Eric Marchese
If you were playwright Ken Ludwig and had a huge hit with “Lend Me a Tenor,” creating a sequel would be a no-brainer.
Or would it?
Ludwig must have resisted the temptation to do so because it wasn’t until 2016, 30 years after that hit comedy, that he penned “A Comedy of Tenors.”
Many an Orange County theatre company has produced “Tenor,” but the sequel has gotten less exposure. Now, fans of Ludwig’s work – and of comedies, and of theatre overall – will have a chance to see it at Cabrillo Playhouse.
The sequel takes the same characters from the first play and moves them from Cleveland to Paris, with a new storyline that unfolds in 1938, four years after the original.
Frank Minano, who’s directing Cabrillo’s production, has seen “A Comedy of Tenors” on stage just once, an Inland Valley Repertory Theatre production at the Candlelight Pavilion in Claremont in 2016, when the show was brand new.
Although, he said, he has seen “a couple of scenes” on YouTube – “some great, some not so great” – he has never seen the show performed elsewhere.
And while it’s Minano’s first time directing the show, he has directed “Lend Me a Tenor,” so he knows the territory.
After the 1986 farce scored such a hit with Cabrillo’s audiences in 2016, he read the new play. The show was considered by Cabrillo for its upcoming season, but it didn’t wind up on the schedule, and wasn’t proposed again until the 2023 lineup was being crafted.
The director calls the newer show “a wonderful farce that focuses on opera divos and divas and delights in adult fun, with misunderstandings that include broad physical comedy and listening to other conversations behind doors.”
Minano said the show’s inception can be traced to a 1990 charity concert starring the three greatest tenors in the world – Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and José Carreras – that was presented at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome on the eve of the World Cup soccer finals.
He said playwright Ludwig has the Saunders character, manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, “come up with a similar idea for three opera singers to sing great arias on a soccer field in Paris.”
Minano said that his father was a huge lover of opera and listened to numerous recordings, so he grew up hearing the magnificent singing of opera stars Mario Lanza, Enzio Pinza, and perhaps the greatest of all, Enrico Caruso.
Promotional copy for “Comedy of Tenors” paints a scenario on the verge of utter comedic chaos: “One hotel suite, four tenors, two wives, three girlfriends, and a soccer stadium filled with screaming fans. What could possibly go wrong?”
The newer show, Minano said, has some similarities to its predecessor,, but also some key differences.
While “the same characters of Max, Tito, Maria, and Saunders are the center of the situation,” the show “introduces new characters like Tito and Maria’s daughter, Mimi, who is having an affair with Tito’s competitor, Carlo,” also a new character.
Minano is no stranger to Ludwig’s works. He has seen “Moon Over Buffalo” on Broadway with Carol Burnett and has directed “Lend Me a Tenor” and “Leading Ladies” in San Clemente.
He also loves Ludwig’s plays and, if not an outright fan of the playwright, is highly appreciative of his talents: “He’s the master of farce” and is “articulate and witty with his dialogue.”
Ludwig clearly sees both the glamor and absurdities of show business, which makes his plays vastly appealing to those who love theatre – not just the theatre community itself but also audiences.
Minano said the fact that Ludwig “goes back to the very basics of farce and comedy, where the jokes come out of the situation” suits his writing to the genre.
“His characters are vivid and larger than life, and while he’s writing some of the situational comedy scenes, master comedians such as Milton Berle, Robin Williams, Roberto Benigni, Carol Burnett, Lucille Ball, and Harvey Korman are definitely in his mind.”
Keys to the success of the show are “pacing and timing,” Minano said, along with “making the characters likable to the audience.”
Casting is also crucial, and for “Comedy of Tenors,” Minano was “looking for actors that connect with each other and have a good sense of timing. Some of the characters require accents, and that was helpful when the actors could do that well at auditions. While Ludwig’s script notes state that singing is not required, our three tenors have stellar voices.”
Minano cast Robert Purcell as Saunders and Dani Bustamonte as Max, Patrick McMahon and Tiffany Berg McMahon as Tito and Maria Merelli, Bridget Rago as Mimi, Eric Modyman as Carlo, and Rebecca Leeds as Racon. Of the seven actors, Merino has previously worked with and directed four.
As in “Lend Me a Tenor,” the set design and costumes of “A Comedy of Tenors” are elements crucial to both the mechanical aspects of the plot and to generating comedy. Rebecca Rubino is Cabrillo’s set designer, Mark Gamez has created the costumes, and Nathaniel Dominguez is the lighting designer.
Minano said that “the charm of (Cabrillo Playhouse) is its intimacy” but notes that while the appeal is a distinct advantage for anyone directing a show there, “on a small stage with broad physical staging required to tell the story,” that close-up nature “is also a challenge.”
“Nonetheless,” he said, “I believe it is being staged well, and the actors are doing a great job with what I call ‘farce-ography.’ Great comedy is all about timing, and with farce, precise staging and timing are essential to keep the comedy funny rather than forced.”
Eric Marchese has written about numerous subjects over more than 39 years as a freelance and staff journalist for a wide variety of publications, but is best known as a critic, feature writer, and news reporter covering theatre and the arts throughout Orange County and beyond.
‘A Comedy of Tenors’
202 Avenida Cabrillo, San Clemente
January 19 - February 11, 2024
(949) 492-0465, www.cabrilloplayhouse.org