Belly laughs, sexy assignations, and dueling divas are on deck for Ken Ludwig’s gender-swapped revision of his landmark comedy Lend Me a Soprano, now keeping the audience in stitches until March 10 at Olney Theatre Center.
For a frothy escape into the 1930s for snippets of grand opera served with large portions of slapstick humor and double entendres, Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Soprano is a wish come true.
You may recall the hilarious Lend Me a Tenor, Ludwig’s first huge stage play success, which took the West End and Broadway by storm in the late 1980s, solidifying the DC-based writer a place as one of the preeminent comedy playwrights ever since. Leading Ladies, Fox on the Fairway, and many literary adaptations, such as The Three Musketeers and the recent Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, have graced stages here and abroad for years.
But Lend Me a Tenor was the play that put Ludwig on the map. The story centered around a famous Italian tenor’s guest appearance at the Cleveland Grand Opera in 1934. Tito Morelli, the divo, has a golden voice and a seedy reputation for womanizing and drinking to excess. Saunders, the general manager of the opera, has his company’s hopes pinned on the grand tenor making his splash onstage and not crashing due to woman or booze. Enter Max, Saunders’ trusty assistant, who is an aspiring tenor himself. With that setup, Lend Me a Tenor unfolds into a farcical romp with jealous husbands, eager opera fans, libidinous sopranos, and an Energizer Bunny of a bellhop who pops in at the most inopportune moments.
Seeing a dearth of juicy female roles, Ludwig decided to give his popular comedy a gender-swapped revision while maintaining the farcical elements and operatic leanings; thus Lend Me a Soprano was born, premiering at Houston’s Alley Theatre in 2022. That production was directed by Eleanor Holdridge, who also directs the new production at Olney.
Holdridge brings a breezy style to Ludwig’s revised play, keeping the action and dialogue crackling along at a brisk pace while allowing large, comedic moments to shine on the magnificent set designed by Andrew Cohen, evoking a grand hotel from the Belle Époque, filled with all the doors requisite for characters to hide in a slam for good measure.
In Ludwig’s skillful flipping of the characters, Max becomes Jo, the female factotum of the Cleveland Grand Opera; like Max, Jo has operatic dreams. At Olney, Rachel Felstein has the charm, warmth, voice, and timing to land her performance right into the audience’s hearts. As her would-be fiancé, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is Jerry, also a charmer, who is not ready to settle down with Jo. Felstein and Ebrahimzadeh have such playful chemistry and ease together, they were very believable as the romantically paired couple.
Enter Mrs. Lucile Wylie, the general manager for the Cleveland company. Like Saunders in the original play, Mrs. Wylie has only one goal in mind: to ensure her opera company’s success by thrusting their guest artist center stage for a grand night of opera and all sorts of positive attention. Wylie is played by Tina Stafford with sharp humor and impeccable comedic timing. Stafford brought to mind gifted grande dames of days gone by like Rosalind Russell or Eve Arden, classy and arch and completely in control from start to finish.
As Mrs. Wylie puts Jo in charge of keeping the visiting soprano away from sex and alcohol, we see the classic setup about to explode. When “La Stupenda,” Elena Firenzi, sweeps in, her hot-blooded Italian husband Pasquale right behind her, everyone knows trouble is not far behind.
Carolann M. Sanita makes the thick-accented Elena a comedic tour-de-force, truly living up to the nickname “La Stupenda.” The playwright finds many moments of levity with the language differences, as well as the classic fish-out-of-water scenarios.
Jo, the aspiring soprano assistant, has a bonding moment with the visiting diva that adds a heartfelt connection between the two characters, even as the fiery Elena conks out right before her curtain time as Carmen, and Jo dons an extra costume and takes the stage replacing the diva with only Mrs. Wylie being the wiser.
After that setup, we are also introduced to supporting players who make the plot machinations even more comical: Leo, the Dutch tenor with a huge (ahem) libido; Beverly, an opera superfan; and Julia, the opera guild president. Tom Patterson, Natalya Lynette Rathnam, and Donna Migliaccio inhabit these roles, respectively, and bring their considerable talents to complete the shenanigans.
With all the double entendres and sight gags, the music does not get short shrift either. Sanita, as Elena, and Felstein, as Jo, both get to show off their considerable pipes, singing selections from Carmen. These ladies are equal parts stunning sopranos and comedic gems. If you need to lend someone a soprano, I’d pick either of them in a trice.
The actors are clothed in period splendor by Sarah Cubbage’s elegant designs. Rounding out the production team with essential contributions are Alberto Segarra’s gorgeous lighting, which gilds Andrew Cohen’s sets appropriately (and provides fireworks during a key moment), and the sumptuous sound design by Matt Rowe, which adds orchestral highlights and keeps the dialogue crisp and clean for all to hear — a major contribution for a verbal comedy with lots of action.
Farce has got to be one of this reviewer’s favorite theater styles, and Ken Ludwig knows how to craft a story that keeps the plot climbing to comedic climaxes and the repartee sharp and hilarious — what more could you want from a stage comedy?
Running Time: About two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Soprano plays through March 10, 2024, at Olney Theatre Center, Roberts Mainstage, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney, MD. Tickets ($40–$90) are available online or through the box office at 301-924-3400, open from 12 pm – 6 pm Wednesdays through Saturdays. Discounts are available for groups, seniors, military, and students (for details click here).
Credits for the cast and creative team are online here (scroll down).
There will be an audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired on Wednesday, March 6 at 7:30 pm. A sign-interpreted performance will be Thursday, March 7 at 7:30 pm.
COVID Safety: Face masks are recommended but no longer required to attend events in any Olney Theatre Center performance spaces.
Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Soprano is directed by Eleanor Holdridge and features Rachel Felstein (Jo), Carolann M. Sanita (Elena Firenzi), Tina Stafford (Mrs. Wylie), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Jerry), Dylan Arredondo (Pasquale), Tom Patterson (Leo), Donna Migliaccio (Julia), and Beverly (Natalya Lynette Rathman). The creative team includes Chris Youstra (music director), Andrew Cohen (set designer), Sarah Cubbage (costume designer), Alberto Segarra (lighting designer), Matt Rowe (sound designer). The team also includes Robb Hunter (fight choreographer), Helen Aberger (intimacy choreographer), Larry Peterson (wig designer), Melissa Flaim (dialect consultant), Ben Walsh (stage manager), and Tori Niemiec (assistant costume designer). Jason Loewith is Olney Theatre’s artistic director.