It is September 1934, and the Cleveland Grand Opera Company is abuzz: Tito Morelli, the greatest tenor of his generation, will make his U.S. debut in Verdi's "Otello" tonight to a packed house of influential subscribers.

It is September 1934, and the Cleveland Grand Opera Company is abuzz: Tito Morelli, the greatest tenor of his generation, will make his U.S. debut in Verdi's "Otello" tonight to a packed house of influential subscribers.

There's only one little problem: He's dead.

Or so thinks the company's high-strung general manager, Saunders, and his bespectacled minion, Max, after good intentions collide with strong tranquilizers. As Saunders hatches a preposterous scheme to substitute Max for Tito, madcap comedy ensues in a tangle of mistaken identities, serial misunderstandings, double entendres and slammed doors.

Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" demands split-second timing and actors with the chops for farce to elicit the belly laughs that helped earn it a Tony Award for Best Play in 1989.

But Camelot's offering, which opened Friday, falls short, primarily because it fails to reach director Dianna Warner's goal of following Ludwig's rule: "Never try to be funny in a comedy. Always play the reality of the situation. The comedy will follow naturally."

Daniel Stephens, who we've seen delight audiences in "The Fantasticks" and other productions, seems particularly self-conscious in his determination to play the conniving and raging Saunders. He works hard, there's no doubt. But we get the feeling he's concentrating a little too much on acting and not enough on the reality of his character, a pressure cooker who finds himself on a red-hot seat ready to blow.

Jazzmin Parker as Maggie, Tito's adoring fan and object of Max's desire, doesn't relax in her character's skin until after intermission, when the pace of the entire production picks up and the laughs get louder. As she and the delightful Kaitie Warner-Falk as Diana, a sultry soprano with the hots for Tito, get caught up in a web of competing Otellos, we get caught up in it all, too.

Sam Cowan's Max is adorable. He's nervous, he's obsequious, he's courageous when forced, he's like Jerry Lewis without the shrillness. And when his mettle is tested and the opportunity to pursue his dream is handed to him on a Moor's platter, he rises to the occasion — and enjoys every minute of it.

Jack Seybold is understated as "Il Stupendo" Tito, but his cluelessness as he is pursued by women who think he's someone else helps the double entendres get more and more ridiculous and funnier.

Seybold and Cowan begin what promises to be a beautiful duet early in the show but are forced to fade into awkward lip synching, leaving the audience wondering: Was this in the script? Was it the director's fancy? Or did the men not have the prowess to finish it?

We know Camelot has the ability to create first-rate productions, and we hope that as the run progresses the actors will shed their self-consciousness, the timing will click into place, and the comedy will follow naturally.

Cathy Noah is city editor of the Mail Tribune. Reach her at 776-4473 or by e-mail at cnoah@mailtribune.com.