By KIM COOL
September 26, 2018
Is there anything that Kristofer Geddie cannot do?
As Max in Venice Theatre’s opening mainstage production of “Lend Me a Tenor,” he plays the role of someone with questionable talent for singing and a nearly terminal case of stage fright who is forced into playing the lead in “Othello” when the star is incapacitated.
That scenario alone is the stuff of a great comedy. Thank you, William Shakespeare and later, Giuseppi Verdi. In both cases, Othello was played in blackface by white actors.
At Venice Theatre, director Ron Ziegler prepared to do just that with the opening mainstage show. “I would make the Othellos ‘Mediterraneanlooking’ rather than black,” Ziegler wrote in the program notes. “It’s probably the safe way.”
Then came the auditions where Geddie won the role and the actor who won the other tenor role was white. Many theaters these days avoid the use of blackface, something that the playwright, Ken Ludwig, is said to accept.
Again, Geddie is not just a talented actor, singer and dancer as well as Venice Theatre’s general manager. Turns out, he also is a teacher, prepared to teach us something that it is about time we learn once and for all.
Geddie was not fine with not using the blackface make up in Venice Theatre’sproduction.
“I am not — I find it insulting not to,” he wrote in an article in the program for this production.
“To play a show set in 1934 and skip over the truth doesn’t work for me, It’s more interesting to know only out of desperation will a Black man be allowed on stage, and only then if we don’t know he’s black.”
This is yet another reason why Venice Theatre is the number one community theater (on a per capita basis) in the U.S. — color blind casting. The best man was chosen for the part by the director. That is how it should always be if we are ever to get on with the show.
This is not the first time color-blind casting has been done at Venice nor even on Broadway (“Hamilton” is a notable example). It simply is more noticeable given the history of white actors playing the roles in black face in “Lend Me a Tenor.”
Rik Robertson portrays Tito Merelli, the tenor who takes too many tranquilizers and can’t go on in the lead role at the Cleveland Opera House. That he also is somewhat larger than Geddie means that Geddie’s costume needs to be stuffed with pillows to make him more closely resemble Morelli.
But this is a farce with so much more to the story. Kenneth Glesge portrays the star-struck bellhop who simply wants the tenor’s autograph (either one).
Equally star-struck is Maggie (Rachel Scheer), whose father, Saunders (Neil Kasanofsky), has to deal with refunding money to the audience or replacing the star with an untested amateur (Max).
Maria (Susan Bowren Laiellia) is Morelli’s long-suffering wife. Diana (Julie Buckler) is the ingénue who hopes the famed tenor will help her to advance in her operatic career in exchange for some offstage action. Julia (Rebecca Cross) is the president of the Cleveland Opera Guild and yet another woman enamored of Morelli or — Max.
That is more than one needs to know to see the potential for humor on steroids. That is what this show delivers.
Sound is by Casey Deiter. Costumes are by Francine Smetts including the twin Othello costumes and the silver “sparkle plenty” dress worn by Julia. Lighting is by Cindy Carruth and musical direction by Michelle Kasanofsky.
Once again, scenic designer Tim Wisgerhof has outdone himself with a set worthy of any theater. Enhancing this set is a collection of Egyptian decor including tables and chairs and even a mummy case, donated to the theater from the estate of Mark Hartman/Carroll M. Hunter, trustee. The Egyptian items are both perfect for the setting of “Othello” but also pay subtle homage to the incredible Egyptian collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.