High-pitched fun: ‘A Comedy of Tenors’ at Walnut Street Theatre

In Walnut Street Theatre's production of

In Walnut Street Theatre's production of "A Comedy of Tenors," from left: Ben Dibble, Frank Ferrante, Scott Greer and (draped over the couch) Jacob Tischler. (Photo courtesy of Mark Garvin)

We’re at a large soccer stadium in Paris, just hours before four tenors are scheduled to sing to a sold-out audience. And nothing could be going worse.

One tenor is an up-and-comer married to the daughter of the show’s producer, and he’s trying to help his father-in-law keep things on an even keel. Another has taken flight to be at the funeral of his mother. A third – a sensational Italian tenor who fights madly with his wife – has arrived in town and fights madly with his wife. And the fourth tenor, a young and handsome American seen as a major threat to the Italian tenor, is trysting secretly with that man’s daughter. Or is it with his wife?

What is it with these crazy tenors? The playwright Ken Ludwig has done very well skewering them, first in 1989 with the hugely popular “Lend Me a Tenor,” and then — after a slew of shows including “Crazy for You” and “Moon Over Buffalo” — with a follow-up, “A Comedy of Tenors.”

In the mind of Ludwig, a York, Pa., native and Haverford alum, a singer with a commanding high voice is a man ripe for cavorting high jinks. You’ll find plenty of that in “A Comedy of Tenors,” a farce with several of the same characters Ludwig created for “Lend Me a Tenor” 26 years before. They come to life wonderfully in Walnut Street Theatre’s current production on its main stage, where a bang-up cast is frantically upping the pitch at every turn.

The production is a theatrical hat trick for a Walnut favorite, Frank Ferrante. First, he plays Tito Merelli, the volatile man who is arguably the world’s greatest tenor. Second, Ferrante plays Beppo, the butler assigned to the regal hotel room where the action takes place in the 1930s. Merelli seems to have run off in anger, and the golden-voiced Beppo is commandeered to take his place. Third, Ferrante is the director of this romp.

He’s great fun to watch, moving in a flash between the two roles and playing each to the hilt alongside several Walnut regulars whose swift timing, under Ferrante’s direction, is perfect. Scott Greer plays the problem-beset producer of this huge event and Ben Dibble – in his 20th show on the Walnut main stage – is his son-in-law, the tenor with a rising reputation. Karen Peakes is the impassioned wife of Tito Merelli – when she and Ferrante confront each other for their characters’ name-calling epithets, you sense the hot blood pumping on the stage.

Their daughter is played by Alanna J. Smith and Jacob Tischler is the young tenor whose increasing fame poses a threat to Tito Merelli and whose love affair with his daughter will pose an even greater one. Dreya Weber is the Russian opera diva who pops onto the scene to see her old boyfriend, Merelli.

On David P. Gordon’s luscious hotel room set, the deceptions, mistaken identities and general capers abound – funny in the first half, even funnier in the second. It’s all set to the sound of the iconic “Drinking Song” from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” which the tenors sing at one point bravely if not gorgeously. The Italian libretto in part of that song translates like this: “All in life that brings no pleasure is folly.” Lighten up! There’s plenty of folly in “A Comedy of Tenors.” Lots of pleasure, too.

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“A Comedy of Tenors” runs through March 3 on the main stage of Walnut Street Theatre, on Walnuts Street between Eighth and Ninth Streets. 215-574-3550 or walnutstreettheatre.org.

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