The prolific playwright Ken Ludwig wrote the door-slamming international hit “Lend Me a Tenor,” the book for the Gershwin refresh “Crazy for You” and, I kid you not, a joke involving a Hollywood starlet who thinks Marie Curie discovered the first antibiotic — and pronounces “penicillin” the way you’re really not supposed to. So, y’know, you’ve been warned.
Now comes “Lend Me a Soprano,” a gender-swapped overhaul of Ludwig’s calling-card farce that’s being marketed at the Olney Theatre Center as a kinder, gentler sort of sex comedy, an update that centers the women in the story and for once sets the men to spinning ’round them. That it also dispenses with a blackface bit central to the plot of the 1986 original will prove a helpful refurbishment for a cash cow whose author would doubtless hope to keep earning those royalties.
Farewell to that histrionic Italian tenor and the endangered production of “Othello” he’s meant to headline in 1934 Cleveland. Cue instead the histrionic Italian soprano Elena Firenzi (Carolann M. Sanita), whose nerves and appetites provoke alcoholic and pharmaceutical events that leave her performance of “Carmen” in jeopardy. Ask, if you must, whether the show will go on: Naturally, it will, though not without many a shenanigan involving an ambitious singing bellhop (Natalya Lynette Rathnam), a ruthless impresario (Tina Stafford) who’s gone full Bloody Mary at the prospect of canceling her sold-out opening night, and an eager-to-please opera-company assistant (Rachel Felstein) who has secretly been studying voice on the side.
Is there a romantic subplot? There is, involving the singing assistant, Jo, and the impresario’s commitment-shy son, Jerry (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who’s sweet on Jo but who’s also been stanning the soprano since he saw her sing at La Scala. Will Jerry cheat on Jo with Elena? There are two identical Carmen costumes, so who’s to say?
More questions: Will the ambitious Dutch tenor (Tom Patterson, sounding hilariously like the Muppets’ Swedish Chef) successfully seduce the mantilla-clad Jo, thinking she’s Elena? Or will things play out the other way ’round? (Honestly, who can keep track?)
And what of Elena’s wildly jealous husband, Pasquale (Dylan Arredondo)? Will he chase one or both couples around the suite, threatening mayhem? Of course he will, because apparently some stereotypes are less tired and toxic than others.
Things feel a bit sweaty and effortful, especially in the early going — not the finest quality in a farce, though the cast may well settle into the show and tighten up its rhythms. And for all his undisputed success, Ludwig has always displayed more technical acumen than writerly genius; his shows work like sturdy timepieces, but their language rarely fizzes, their ridiculousnesses rarely evanescing into the sublime.
But director Eleanor Holdridge choreographs the chaos clearly enough, and “Lend Me a Soprano” does at least look awfully swell. Andrew R. Cohen’s stunner of a hotel-suite set, done up in a sumptuous cream-and-gold style that might be called late ostentatious, makes plenty of space for all the tomfoolery, and Sarah Cubbage upholsters both fools and fond-hearted lovers alike in evening wear suggesting the Great Depression never quite reached Ludwig’s Cleveland.
Two distinctly unalloyed pleasures: the moment when the Italian diva teaches the Ohio tyro a few tricks about how to really sing from the gut, and the moment when Donna Migliaccio — beloved veteran of both Four Mile Run and the Great White Way, swanning through the part of a daffy opera-guild dame — makes her entrance for the gala done up in flowing silver lamé and the inevitable tiara. “How do I look?” she demands imperiously. “Like the Chrysler Building,” her scene partner cracks.
Hey, even Ludwig lands a tight one now and again.
Lend Me a Soprano, by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Eleanor Holdridge. Music direction, Christopher Youstra; scenic design, Andrew R. Cohen; costume design, Sarah Cubbage; lighting, Alberto Segarra; sound, Matt Rowe. About 2 hours including an intermission. Through March 10 at Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney Sandy Spring Rd., Olney, Md. olneytheatre.org.