WHEN: Plays in repertory through Sept. 1.
WHERE: Utah Shakespearean Festival, 351 W. Center St., Cedar City.
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
BOTTOM LINE: A sparkling rendition of a well-loved story made new, thanks to a layered score and generous performers.
CEDAR CITY - For those who believe in the religion of live theater, there's a new musical sermon in town: Utah Shakespearean Festival's "Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical."
In an age of remakes, it's a clever idea to convert a well-known contempory comedy - set behind-the-scenes at the Cleveland Grand Opera company - into a musical.
Then there's the material: Composer Brad Carroll sets off fireworks with a compelling, textured score, successfully blending 1930s-era Gershwin influences with the magic of opera to craft songs that sound new. That's layered with the combustible kindling of narrative jokes by playwright and lyricist Peter Sham, who's noted by USF audiences for his big style as an actor, ready to add his own elbow to your gut to make something more out of a comic moment.
Just as the wacky "The Drowsy Chaperone" took Broadway by storm last year, "Tenor" serves as a primer on the pleasures of musical theater, while its storytelling stylishness helps reinvent a tired genre. The joy of this production is its sparkling tone of sophisticated corniness.
Adding to the feeling of an event buzzing through the Randall Theatre's opening-night audience on June 30, was the fact that the musical was written by Carroll and Sham, a pair of recent Cedar City transplants, the audience packed with friends and family. Yet that feel-the-love local backstory only underscored the energetic performances of a fine cast, led by three tenors - elbow to the gut nudge: get it? - who find out who they are as they chase around the women in their lives.
The show centers around the charmingly understated - yet high-wattage - comedy of Jered Tanner's Max Garber, who creates a sympathetic character out of slopping shoulders, perpetually wrinkled forehead, and the Woody Allen-esque stage business of worrying his eyeglasses back up his nose.
He's a nebbish wannabe singer who is assigned by opera company owner Henry Saunders (Joe Vincent) to mind the visiting guest star, Italian tenor Tito Merelli (Steven Stein-Grainger). Max is so unassuming that when he proposes to his restless girlfriend, Maggie (Jane Noseworthy), she overlooks him with the song, "I Need a Fling," while dancing with a cardboard cutout of Tito.
When the tenor finally arrives for his guest-starring gig, he's late, feeling ill and fighting with his spirited wife, Maria (Melinda Parrett), yet he connects with Max, and offers him a singing lesson in song, "Be Youself," which blossoms into a grand-scale, show-stopping highlight.
Later, through a variety of mishaps, Max and Saunders have reason to believe Tito is dead. What happens next, with three men running around in red velvet panalooned costumes, their faces smeared with brown greasepaint and topped by Prince Valiant wigs, reworks the original play and serves as a smart visual nod to Shakespeare's well-loved ploy of employing disguises and mistaken identities.
Most of the plot comes from the original, but the narrative layers and the score's sweeping songs, reinvented in reprises, serve to enrich the characters' stories. Consider the poignant "I Would Choose-a You All Over Again," where Tito and Maria are joined on stage by a couple who serve as the memory of their young selves, the quartet's Italian dialogue translated on SuperTitle screens as they reprise the same quarrel they've been having since their wedding day.
A longish first act makes the show's big finish seem to arrive even more quickly, thanks to Roger Bean's fluid direction, Jeremy Mann's spirited musical direction, Michael Carnahan's magical, smart sets and Bill Black's witty costume choices (in the hotel scence, check out the lettering of the Cleveland Hotel towel wrapped around Diana, the diva-on-the-make, where only the letters "Ho" are visible).
On opening night, a few staging flaws showed off the to-the-wire energy of this premiere - a couple of microphone problems, some weak phrases in the ensemble numbers opening the second act, and a sense that the ending numbers aren't totally finished. Yet this production plays bigger than it is is, because its storytellers - writers, cast and crew - have so gleefully embraced its own earnestness.
As you leave the theater, what you'll be humming is Tito and Max's "Be Youself," a singing and life lesson that tangibly reveals the chemistry of two generous performers, while showcasing Tanner's transformation into an opera-sized talent. It's a beautiful scene, a theatrical call-and-response for authenticity that reveals this musical's big heart.