In the mid-eighties, Ken Ludwig's operatic farce Lend Me A Tenor had them rolling in the aisles in the West End at the attempts of a desperate impresario to replace his indisposed opera star without his audience – or the rest of the cast – knowing they're watching an understudy.
The play went on to glory on Broadway, where it has lately been revived, but now comes a musical version with book and lyrics by Peter Sham and music by Brad Carroll, arriving at the Gielgud Theatre by way of the Utah Shakespeare Festival and the Theatre Royal Plymouth.
Ian Talbot's production is faultlessly cast, with a lumbering, bearish Matthew Kelly as the neurotic impresario Henry Saunders; Michael Matus as the heart-throb Italian tenor Tito Merelli; Joanna Riding as Merelli's jealous, vengeful wife Maria; Damian Humbley as Max, the geek with the voice of a god who ends up drugging and replacing Tito in Verdi's Otello; and Cassidy Janson as Saunders' daughter Maggie, who is adored by Max but has the hots for Tito.
The sets, particularly an opulent lavender-and-gilt hotel penthouse, have been sumptuously dressed by Paul Farnsworth, and there are some shimmering moments, such as the bellhops' and maids' tapdance routines and an argument between Tito and his wife which is sung entirely in Italian, in the style of high opera, with gilded surtitles dropping from the proscenium. Sophie-Louise Dann, as the brassy diva Diana, stops the show with an audition number called "May I Have a Moment", combining a medley of classical opera with low comedy to hilarious effect.
Unfortunately the moments of originality are few in a show that could have been written any time in the past five decades. At their best, the lyrics exude Guys 'n' Dolls sass ("How do we sell O/tello with no fellow/ here?"), but much of the music smacks of forgettable light opera and the title song makes no sense when put in the mouth of Maggie, a character who has no need of anyone to lend her a tenor.
There is too little of the hugely enjoyable choreography while the slapdash plotting of the original material breaks the cardinal rule of farce that, however preposterous the action, it must be entirely believable when you’re caught up in it.
It's all harmless, cosy fun which will put a smile on your face even if it won't quite split your sides. But ultimately it's no more than impeccably directed fluff, which is frustrating given the talents on show.