It is the biggest night in the history of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company. The world-famous tenor, Tito Merelli, “Il Stupendo,” is to perform his greatest role, Otello, at the ten-year anniversary gala season opener. Henry Saunders, the opera’s executive director, has high hopes that Merelli’s performance will put Cleveland on the operatic map. However, at the final dress rehearsal of Otello, Merelli is nowhere to be found, Saunders is in a panic, and, along with Max Garber, Saunders’s personal assistant, they scramble to figure out what to do (“Where the Hell Is Merelli?”).
Meanwhile, Maggie Saunders, Henry’s daughter, is making preparations for Merelli’s arrival. She has transformed the neighboring Cleveland Hotel lobby (the place set for the gala reception) into a shrine to the opera star. Max enters and insists Maggie shouldn’t get her hopes up, that Merelli might not show. Maggie believes otherwise and has additional plans concerning Merelli (“I Need a Fling”).
Saunders rushes in and presses Max on an alternate plan. To make matters worse, they receive news that the President and Mrs. Roosevelt will be in attendance at the evening’s gala. Desperately, Saunders turns to Max for an idea. Max, who fancies he is something of an opera singer himself, offers a solution (“How ‘bout Me?”). In the middle of the song, Tito Merelli and his volatile wife, Maria, enter incognito. After the song Saunders and Max are told of the Merelli’s arrival and rush to make them welcome.
Fifteen floors above, in the Cleveland Hotel’s penthouse suite, the hotel staff makes final preparations for a royal welcome (“For the Love of Opera”). However, once the Merelli’s arrive at their suite, it becomes painfully clear that Tito is in shaky shape to perform. He is suffering from a terrible stomachache and is at odds with his wife over his preoccupation with women. Maria storms off into the bedroom. Saunders exits to ready the opera company and guild for “Il Stupendo’s performance. Tito enters the bedroom to comfort his wife, but his efforts are to no avail (“I Would Choose You All Over Again”).
After yet another row with Maria, Tito returns to the sitting room. Now alone, Max and Tito share a drink and come together to form a common bond of admiration, friendship, and respect (“Be Youself”). Meanwhile, Tito’s wife is busily composing a note resolving to leave her husband for good, and, when she finds Maggie hiding in the bedroom closet desperate to meet Tito, she angrily departs.
Soon, Tito, somewhat dazed after ingesting a triple dose of tranquilizers, which he has unwittingly mixed with a large amount of Chianti, finds Maria’s note and threatens to kill himself. His tirade is finally calmed by Max who sings him tenderly to sleep with the notion that Maria will be “Back before You Know It.”
Tito passes out, and when Max tries to rouse him, Tito appears to be lifeless. Max comes to the conclusion that Tito is dead! When Maria’s “Dear John” letter is mistaken for a suicide note, Max and Saunders realize the company stands to lose $50,000 in ticket sales unless it can find a way for the “dead” singer to deliver the performance of his life (“Holy $#@!”).
From here on, the play unfolds into a riotous and unpredictable explosion of mistaken identities and renewed love! Finally, at show’s end, everyone is filled with a sense that they just might get the thing each of them desires, and that the Cleveland Grand Opera Company’s future will be a bright one (“Lend Me a Tenor Reprise”).