‘A Comedy of Tenors’: Ken Ludwig does it again

From left, Bobby Conte Thompson, Ron Orbach, Bradley Dean and Rob McClure co-star in "A Comedy of Tenors."

From left, Bobby Conte Thompson, Ron Orbach (standing at rear), Bradley Dean and Rob McClure co-star in “A Comedy of Tenors,” which is at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Nov. 1.

“From this point on, Max, nothing can go wrong,” opera impresario Henry Saunders (Ron Orbach) tells his assistant and son-in-law (played by Rob McClure) in “A Comedy of Tenors,” a sparkling new comedy that is at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through Nov. 1, in its East Coast premiere. And his prediction stays true for, oh, a few seconds or so.

Everything, of course, does go wrong in this classically constructed farce, but then is magically made right again. And there are tons of laughs along the way. Ken Ludwig uses, once again, the characters of his popular 1986 comedy, “Lend Me a Tenor”; but whereas as “Lend Me a Tenor” was set in 1934, in Cleveland, “A Comedy of Tenors” takes place two years later, in Paris.

The hard-driving but big-hearted Saunders, an American, is in Paris to produce a big Three Tenors-style concert starring the famous Italian singer Tito Merelli (Bradley Dean). Tito’s daughter Mimi (Kristen Martin) is having an affair with another tenor, Carlo (Bobby Conte Thornton), and keeping it from her parents. Her mother Maria (Antoinette LaVecchia) finds out, but when Tito spies Carlo and Maria together, he mistakenly thinks it is they who are having the affair.

Kristen Martin and Bobby Conte Thompson in "A Comedy of Tenors."

Kristen Martin and Bobby Conte Thompson in “A Comedy of Tenors.”

Many more misunderstandings and complications — and plenty of slammed doors — ensue, and Tito not only demands a divorce, but says he won’t do the concert, just a few hours before showtime. Enter Beppo (also played by Dean), a bellboy who happens to sing opera beautifully, and look just like Tito. Beppo can sing at the big concert, Saunders won’t tell the audience of the substitution (neither Tito’s nor Beppo’s name will be mentioned, and nobody will know the difference), and the show can go on!

Beppo soon finds himself in the eye of a hurricane, though, when both a hungry-for-reconciliation Maria and Tito’s old flame Tatiana — a Russian soprano who’s heard he’s in town — throw themselves at him, thinking he’s Tito. Beppo doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, but happily goes along with it. But now he finds himself trying to juggle two women while also getting ready for the musical break of a lifetime, when he sings at the big show.

Tito eventually comes back, of course, and that’s when “A Comedy of Tenors” really kicks into high gear, with Dean switching back and forth between his two juicy roles at a dizzying pace, and Ludwig and director Stephen Wadsworth coming up with some clever ways to sustain the illusion. There’s a nice bonus after the cast takes their bows, too; I won’t spoil the surprise, but trust me: Don’t leave early.

Everything about the production is first-rate, starting with the set: designer Charlie Corcoran has come up with a suitably opulent but not-overstated look for the hotel suite, with the Eiffel Tower visible through a window. Dean, Thornton and McClure sing well when called on to do so. And no matter how crazed the action gets, all the moving parts are exactly where they need to be.

Not every joke works: There are plenty of throwaways gags along the way. But ultimately, “A Comedy of Tenors” proved to be a worthy successor to “Lend Me a Tenor,” as well as a second triumph for Ludwig, this year, at the McCarter (his new, ingeniously staged “Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery” proved equally entertaining there in March).

“A Comedy of Tenors” will be presented at the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center through Nov. 1; visit mccarter.org.

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