Looking for love, laughter and a couple of high Cs? Olney Theatre Center has the cure for that overload of bad news and uncertain times, even if “A Comedy of Tenors” — playwright Ken Ludwig’s comedy-wrapped-in-an-opera-festooned with elements of farce and feel-good moments — tends to defy description.
“It’s not a musical, no, not at all,” said Emily Townley, who plays the non-singing role of Maria Merelli, opera divo Tito’s long-suffering wife. “It’s a straight-up play with singing. It takes place before a large Three Tenors-like concert in Paris. It’s the day of the concerts and the tenors are part of the action, running around.”
This is Townley’s second Ludwig play; she calls the internationally acclaimed playwright (and D.C. resident) “a charming human being, a lovely guy.” And she sums up “A Comedy of Tenors” as classic Ludwig, complete with “slamming doors, silliness, sexy, slapping faces, mistaken identity.”
Townley, who earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in theater from Virginia Commonwealth University, considers herself a D.C. native. “I’ve been here since I was 9, but I’m originally from England,” she explained. “American father, British mother. I started living working in the D.C. area out of college.” Her character is Italian, which she said “is new for me. I don’t play that very often. It’s been a learning experience, this accent, but it’s a fun one. I try every night not to sound like Chef Boyardee.”
Happily ever after? John Treacy Egan as Tito and Emily Townley as Maria in “A Comedy of Tenors” at Olney Theatre Center.
Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Townley doesn’t sing, but she points out that castmates John Treacy Egan, Alan Naylor, Matthew Schleigh and Patricia Hurley most definitely do. “It’s the ‘Comedy of Tenors,” she explained, “and we do have three lovely, lovely tenor voices and a lovely soprano voice singing live opera — real opera — and intermittent bits throughout the play. It’s beautiful.”
It’s fun, too. Townley is a company member at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company where “we do a lot of new plays, really cutting-edge, thought-provoking difficult, dark, very modern pieces.” The last show she did, at Round House Theatre, was “How I Learned to Drive,” which is about sexual abuse. “I like to dive into meaty subjects,” she acknowledged, “but I have to say it’s been a lot more fun than I anticipated, coming in and laughing every day.”
It’s not always easy, especially executing the slapstick comedy, which Townley likens to an obstacle course. “This is not off-the-cuff-comedy; it’s precision,” she said, noting that onstage in this show, timing is everything, “and the math of that is very interesting. We’re having a lot of fun with it: the pratfalls and the sexual double entendre.” The audience is having fun with it, too. Townley reported standing ovations in the previews, especially rewarding as the cast moved from rehearsal to actual interaction with an audience. In return, the audience gets an evening of laughter and song.
“If nothing else, it’s going to be two hours of just letting people relax and enjoy something fun and silly — and at the same time, sentimental and loving and warm,” she said.
Which is a lot to produce, but Director Jason King Jones — also Olney Theatre’s senior associate artistic director and artistic director of National Players, Olney’s outreach program/touring company — said the work is a joy. “We’re having a great time,” he said. “The show is a well-crafted comedy, and we’re having a ball working on it.”
The sequel to Ludwig’s Tony-winning “Lend Me a Tenor,” which ran on Broadway in 1989, “A Comedy of Tenors” picks up with the original show’s characters — the Merellis, opera impresario Henry Saunders and his sidekick/son-in-law/performer Max — and a few new ones as well.
“It’s a play about an opera producer who is trying to produce a three tenors concert at Olympic Stadium in Paris in 1938, explained Jones. “So. the central characters of the story are all opera singers. They rehearse Sempre Libera from ‘La Traviata’ in the course of the show. So, we have three people singing opera onstage.”
Saunders (Alan Wade, far left) and Max (Matthew Schleigh, far right) try to keep Carlo (Alan Naylor, left) and Tito (John Treacy Egan) apart.
Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Those people — Egan as Tito, Schleigh as Max and Naylor as Carlo (there are four if you count Hurley, who appears as the Russian diva Racon) — bring not just acting skills and comic timing to the stage. They actually can belt out an aria.
“The real treat of the show is that you have these incredible actors, these comedic talents, all who are really smart and have great heart and crafted skill in acting,” said Jones, “and they also are accomplished singers who can really wow you with their vocal quality.”
Those requirements might limit the talent pool, Jones admitted, “but it also means that the people you get, who can do all those things, are exceptional.”
Although he has a bit of opera experience, having directed at Boston University’s Opera Institute, Jones doesn’t think this play requires a lot of opera knowledge. “It’s really for someone who is deft at comedy,” he said. “It’s a comedy at its heart; it uses opera as a framework for the characters.”
Which means even opera-unacquainted audiences can enjoy the show: it’s all about the universal language of comedy. “There’s a lot to comedy,” Jones said. “It starts on the basis of truth; you have to understand who the characters are as people, what the circumstances are that are putting them in the situation.”
By grounding the story in truth, he added, the comedy helps reflect the story itself. “There are comedies where it’s all about funny bit after funny bit — and the bits themselves can be hilarious,” he noted. “We look at how all the bits and moments help lift up the story and reflect the circumstances — and how they all play into the most satisfying and full evening you can have in the theater.”
Central to that satisfaction in “A Comedy of Tenors” is Egan, last seen on Broadway in “My Fair Lady” and known for his roles on Broadway in “The Producers,” “Sister Act,” and “Jekyll & Hyde.”
Speaking in tongue: John Treacy Egan brings comedy and opera to “A Comedy of Tenors” at Olney Theatre Center.
Photo credit: Stan Barouh
Egan grew up in Larchmont, New York, putting on shows in the garage with his sister and doing plays at St. John and Paul parish where his friend’s aunt was the director before he headed into the city to audition for shows on Broadway.
“Probably because I didn’t know any better,” he laughed. “I just went.” He studied opera at SUNY Purchase, so playing Tito (and Beppo, the singing bellman) is a throwback to his roots. “I haven’t done much opera, except at college,” he explained. “I’ve pursued musical theater more than I’ve pursued opera, it spoke to me more, I think.”
He pursued comedy, too, and sees a definite connection between the genres. “Comedy is like music; you really have to observe the rests and the beats,” he said. “And if you don’t ‘play it’ like music, it’s not successful.”
For Egan, Ludwig’s signature slapstick, pratfalls and mistaken identity are a perfect fit. “I love that kind of comedy, it’s my favorite,” he said. “I grew up watching ‘I Love Lucy,’ and the great Jackie Gleason — all that quick-timing stuff.” Stuff he pulls off to the delight of the audience. For Egan, it’s all about giving theatregoers a break from their worries as they join him and the cast for an evening of music and fun.
“It’s just a romp; it’s silly,” he said. “It’s fun to watch the mistaken identities and the crazy misunderstandings of these people. Nothing is super-heavy, and people really do love to just come and see something that’s hysterically funny.”
For Egan, performing in “A Comedy of Tenors” at Olney is “such a gift — to work with such a great cast and a great director; the set is beautiful, the costumes are beautiful, and I think people are just going to really enjoy their evening out.
“It’s not a long play,” he added. “It kind of feels like a really great dessert. Not too heavy.”
“A Comedy of Tenors” runs through May 12 on the Mainstage at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, Olney. Performances are at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday, Sunday plus Wednesday, May 1. An audio-described performance for the blind and visually impaired is set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 24 and a sign-interpreted performance will begin at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 2. Tickets start at $42, with discounts available for groups, seniors, military and students. Call 301-924-3400 or visit www.olneytheatre.org