I had the very good fortune to see the original production of Lend Me a Tenor back in 1989. I remember three things distinctly: Phillip Bosco bellowing, Victor Garber in black face, and that the play was pretty funny. It is nearly impossible to forget performers like Mr. Bosco and Mr. Garber, but the current revival of the farce by Ken Ludwig has pretty much obliterated any remaining memories of the first production.
Helmed by Stanley Tucci, a man whose acting talents and his variety of roles always impress me, this marks his Broadway directorial debut. And what a debut it is! You always hear how difficult comedy is, and how if it is done correctly, it will seem like no effort at all. Well, this must have been a mountain of difficulty and it must be done right because it comes of like a spontaneous, believable, outrageous comedy of errors. Kudos to Mr. Tucci and shame on the Tony nominators for excluding his efforts on this year's awards list.
He has directed a seamless production, whose pace ebbs and flows like the waves of champagne at an opening night gala. Just as he (and Mr. Ludwig's script) allows you a very brief respite from nearly non-stop laughter, you are hit with another barrage of comedy from a seemingly endless arsenal of comic variety. Say what you will about the script itself - paper thin plot, contrived situation, hard to believe mistaken identity - it is funny in so many different ways it is hard to explain. There is situational comedy, physical comedy, hyper-emotional comedy, characterization comedy, mistaken identity comedy, sex farce comedy, and just for a wee bit of fun, audience participation. Oh! And did I mention that it is a farce? Door-slamming and quick entrances and exits are the order of the day. That all of this is crammed into a two hour show is both miraculous and perfection. Each element has been scrupulously planned and expertly executed. It is of supreme credit to the director and his cast that each moment not only feels spontaneous, but also very honest. No matter how zany it gets, and it gets uber-zany, each cast member plays it straight and for real, even when their emotions are out of control.
Basically, the plot is thus: World famous "Il Stupendo", an opera tenor, has been hired to play his signature role, Otello, for the 10th anniversary gala of the Cleveland Opera Company. He arrives ill, with a ball of fire wife, and all sorts of people doting on him. They include uptight, scheming the opera manager, his hot mess of a doddering wife, his star-struck daughter, the manager's nebbish assistant with a secret desire to sing, the soprano who wants more from her co-star than a good duet, and even the hotel's bellhop. When a series of mishaps occur that render the tenor unconscious and believed to be dead, the greatest cover up in Cleveland history begins. Before it is all over, the police are in pursuit of a deranged madman dressed as Otello, an audience soon to fall ill from bad shrimp salad, a marriage proposal is scrapped, two girls run around in underwear and nothing more than a towel, and no less than three wax grapes are spit into the audience.
OK, so there are holes galore, and no one could ever mistake Justin Bartha - a small guy - for Anthony LaPaglia - a considerably larger man. But the heart believes what it wants to see, right? And this is a farce, so who cares how plausible it is as long as it is funny, fast, a little naughty, and everything turns out OK in the end!?
There is not only superb direction, but equally fine design - 1930's style fancy clothes beautifully designed by Tony nominee Martin Pakledinaz (along with Paul Huntley's life-like wigs), a beautifully rendered two room suite with easy view from all angles (I was at the far house left, and could see all doors) designed by John Lee Beatty, and expertly lit to help give focus during certain scenes by Kenneth Posner. These folks have provided the framework and given the cast all the tools. But it is the company that keeps the whole thing from falling apart. Devoid of any discernible ego, they all act as one, regardless of fame or size of role. I am certain that it would be apparent if any real diva business was happening, that is how tight this group is in performance.
The weakest link in the cast has, thankfully, the least to do. Brooke Adams, as the company manager's wife (and Mr. Shalhoub's wife in real life), seems completely asea in a role that seems pretty straight forward: part snooty opera patron of privilege, part klutz and airhead with a decent heart. Ms. Adams seems mechanical in rendering the physicality - she can get her dress caught in the door just fine, but lacks the finesse or comic polish to extract it and get a laugh. She isn't on much, and she seems to be enjoying herself so the distraction is minimal overall. The rest of the cast is top notch from bottom to top.
Jeff Klaitz's opera fan bellhop is appropriately gregarious, smooth enough not to insult, but smart enough to insinuate himself into a situation he should never be in, all for a photo op and an autograph. That he can go toe-to-toe in blustering with Mr. Shalhoub says a lot for his presence. The versatile Jennifer Laura Thompson (Urinetown: the Musical, Wicked) is a funny burst of sexy energy in each act as the lusty soprano who beds all of her co-stars. She is equally as funny with the sex farce stuff (in a very small towel) as she is with the situational comedy she pulls off before her clothes are in a pile on the floor. Mary Catherine Garrison, another very versatile young actress (Assassins, Rabbit Hole, The Man Who Came to Dinner), manages to get a great deal of comedy out of the "silly ingenue" character she plays.. Garrison can pout and be funny, scream in frustration and be funny, or simply stand in a doorway, exposed to the world and be funny. Her timing is great, and she offers a nice contrast (and at one point a comparison) to Ms. Thompson.
I have to admit that even though I know Anthony LaPaglia is an accomplished actor far beyond his years in Without a Trace, I was was in no way prepared for his comic abilities, which are Tony worthy. He, like Maxwell, must do it all with a thick Italian accent, and he is crystal clear and perfectly timed. And his physical comedy has a lot to do with playing dead while everyone else physically abuses his corpse-like body. His is every inch the divo, and still you find yourself liking him. (In fact, despite thier outward nastiness and hyper emotions, all of the characters are ultimately likable.)
It was announced recently that the show will close August 15th, when the actors' contracts expire. That is a shame, because the show deserves a longer run - it is better than the original production, by far. But the bigger shame would be if you miss this show before it leaves town. You will laugh until your gut hurts. Trust me, I can still feel it every time I take a deep breath!
(Photos by Joan Marcus)
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