The frantic foolishness that fuels “Lend Me a Tenor” has not diminished in the two decades since the Ken Ludwig comedy’s initial New York appearance.
If anything, the play’s desperation quotient- a prime ingredient of any farce worth its belly laughs- has only increase in the show’s first Broadway revival, which opened Sunday a the Music Box Theatre.
The actors have amped up the agitation in this stylish production, directed a jet-propelled pace by Stanley Tucci. The angst in Ludwig’s convoluted plot revolves around a seemingly dead opera singer named Tito Merelli, known as Il Stupendo, whose apparent demise in a Cleveland hotel room before a gala performance of “Otello” must be covered up by a local opera impresario. What to do?
The opera company manger (Tony Shalhoub) decides to substitute his nerdy, bespectacled assistant (Justin Bartha), an aspiring opera singer, for the famous tenor. But Tito has not expired, and before you know it the tow men, in blackface, shaggy wigs and identical costumes, are causing considerable confusion.
Ludwig knows the mechanics of comedy, particularly how to set up a joke. And if not all of them land with bull’s-eye precision, the laughs build with increasing regularity as the mayhem intensifies.
Shalhoub’s emotionally explosive overbearing opera manager is a kissing cousin of Max Bialystock, of “The Producers,” and the actor bellows with a fine comic roar. Anthony LaPaglia as the hammy Tito, complete with cheesy Italian accent, preens with equal amounts of ego and lechery.
Jan Maxwell scores major laughs as Tito’s jealous wife, a spitfire who snarls with the intensity of a lioness protecting her cubs. The woman has reason to be suspicious- what with the seductive soprano (a sexy Jennifer Laura Thompson) and the young assistant’s intended (a Kewpie-doll perfect Mary Catherine Garrison) in eager pursuit of the famous singer.
Also in the cast are the lovely Brooke Adams, looking too young to be a Cleaveland society matron, and Jay Klaitz as an aggressive, strong-voiced bellhop who is a Tito groupie.
But what gives this production an unexpected boost is something not usually found in a farce- heart. That quality is supplied by Bartha, making his Broadway debut as the nervous would-be tenor. The actor is a superb farceur, at ease with the verbal complexity of the give-and-take dialogue and the physical demands of the role that having him bouncing around the stage.
Yet he also projects and appealing sweetness, even as the world around him collapses in chaos. In what is basically a parade of cartoon characters, Bartha’s neophyte singer is a hero to root for.
John Lee Beatty’s 1930’s hotel setting is opulent and doesn’t neglect the one design element required of every farce: a series of doors, which are slammed with increasing frequency as the evening progresses.
“Lend Me a Tenor” may not be Georges Feydeau, the French master of farce, but this American-grown homage provides more than enough laughter to keep Ludwig’s outlandish story spinning merrily.
There are bona fide stars in the revival of Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor," which opened last night: Tony Shalhoub from "Monk" and Anthony LaPaglia, a Tony winner for "A View From the Bridge" in 1998.
But it's Justin Bartha -- the missing groom from the hit movie "The Hangover" -- who takes the final bow.
And Bartha deserves it: He's the engine that powers this show. He doesn't just make his Broadway debut, he dynamites the doors open.
Happily, the rest of the cast rises to the challenge, and "Lend Me a Tenor" is exactly what it needs to be: hilarious.
It's often said that a good comedy must be like a well-oiled machine. Actor-turned-director Stanley Tucci must have had a can of WD-40 handy. Doors get slammed a lot in this show, but there aren't many creaky hinges.
Admittedly, the plot is ludicrous -- but then so was the one in the stewardess farce "Boeing-Boeing," the closest equivalent to this "Tenor" in recent Broadway memory. You don't sign up for plausibility.
It's 1934, and a famous Italian tenor, Tito Merelli (LaPaglia), is about to sing "Othello" at the Cleveland Grand Opera's gala -- but he's passed out and can't be revived. The opera's desperate manager, Saunders (Shalhoub), goads his meek, singer-wannabe assistant, Max (Bartha), into stepping in as Tito, in full Moor makeup.
Of course, the mix wouldn't be complete without some volatile women: Max's girlfriend, Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison), crushed out on Tito; the star's hot-tempered wife, Maria (the scene-stealing Jan Maxwell); and ambitious soprano Diana (Jennifer Laura Thompson).
Identities are mistaken, characters run in and out of rooms (and closets), and people often converse about completely different topics without realizing it.
The last is as far as Ludwig's wit goes -- his lines usually aren't funny in and of themselves -- so it's not surprising that the nonverbal shenanigans score the biggest laughs. There's memorable hissing from Maxwell, squealing from LaPaglia and screeching from Bartha, while Shalhoub delivers pregnant pauses big enough for octuplets.
And of course the slapstick is virtually nonstop, with people tumbling, pratfalling, throwing themselves onto beds and couches, and spitting various items into the audience.
Cheap stuff? Yes, and it's wonderful.
True, the intensity occasionally dips in the second act. But every time Bartha is onstage, looking like Sammy Davis Jr. in a Renaissance Faire getup, he brings down the house. The actor's command of the mechanics of comedy is a joy to behold.
Lend a tenor? We just bought one lock, stock and barrel.
One, two, three, four, five. Yes, that’s five doors on the stage of the Music Box Theater, where a revival of Ken Ludwig’s “Lend Me a Tenor” opened Sunday night. Five doors, primed for slamming, in a single hotel suite. All but incontrovertible physical evidence that farce is on the bill.
And slam they do, as Mr. Ludwig’s cast of buffa characters churns through a dizzying plot about an ailing Italian tenor, his jealous wife, a sexy soprano, a scheming impresario and his mousy factotum with dreams of opera stardom. But the heady ether of prime farce never materializes in this labor-intensive but laugh-deficient evening, directed by Stanley Tucci and starring Tony Shalhoub as the desperate impresario and Anthony LaPaglia as the troublesome tenor.
Waiting in antsy boredom for the comic payoff that Mr. Ludwig’s elaborate setup promises, I felt like a kid on Christmas morning, squirming in frustration as Dad labors to put together that fancy new toy — only to discover there are a few parts missing from the box.
Much of the responsibility for the evening’s only fitful amusement lies with the material itself. “Lend Me a Tenor” was a big hit in its first Broadway run two decades ago, playing for more than a year and winning a Tony for the great Philip Bosco in the role of the impresario. But Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times, noted that Mr. Ludwig’s comedy “is all things farcical except hilarious.” This time around, the unhilarity is almost uninterrupted, and sometimes magnified by miscasting and flaccid pacing.
Set in a tony Cleveland hotel suite in 1934 in the course of a single day, the comedy centers on the anxiously awaited arrival of Tito Merelli, a world-famous tenor who is barnstorming across the country collecting big fees and nightly conquests, despite the slit-eyed supervision of his temperamental wife, Maria (Jan Maxwell). Tonight he performs Verdi’s “Otello” — hardly gala fare in 1934 Ohio, I’d imagine, but necessary for Mr. Ludwig’s mistaken-identity plot.
Mr. Shalhoub’s congenitally exasperated Saunders, the impresario, has commissioned his assistant, Max (Justin Bartha of “The Hangover”), to chaperone Merelli, the tenor, making sure that he gets to the theater on time. Max, an aspiring tenor himself who (ludicrously) happens to know the daunting role of Otello by heart, attempts to keep the tempestuous tenor docile by putting him down for a nap, with the help of pharmaceuticals. As curtain time approaches and Merelli remains comatose, it appears there’s no solution but for Max himself to slap on the blackface and slip into the tights, resulting in mayhem when the original recovers and does the same.
The evening’s skilled actors are more than game for the physical challenges of low comedy. Much of the humor that does land derives from the wordless comic byplay among the characters, as they leap ferociously across the furniture in fits of sexual arousal, rage or stupefied fright. The producers may need to have a physical therapist on call, so relentlessly do the actors fling themselves around the room, and on top of one another. But when you have to display the physical prowess and stamina of a Lance Armstrong to keep the engine of comedy humming at an acceptable level, it’s a sure indication that there is something wrong with the machinery itself.
True, a certain amount of inanity is an accepted ingredient in farce, but you could handily herd the entire cast of “Aida,” elephants and all, through the holes in Mr. Ludwig’s labored plot. Nor is there much authentic wit in the dialogue, with most of the jokes centering on the usual lusts and bodily functions.
Even the central comic device — the two Otellos — strikes a sour note in the age of Obama. Is it really so amusing that Max and Merelli, of wildly different body types and voices, would suddenly be perceived as interchangeable simply by putting on blackface and a fright wig?
Both Mr. Shalhoub and Mr. LaPaglia have been funny in other contexts, and they certainly work hard here. Mr. Shalhoub has won multiple awards for his neurotic detective on the series “Monk,” but he lacks the exuberant temperament of a natural farceur, and his Saunders has a vaguely sinister and funereal aspect, as well as a forced, pseudo-posh accent. Mr. LaPaglia was terrific in a recurring role on “Frasier,” and he dutifully puts on a dopey Italian accent and mugs away, but the role’s outsize silliness is not a smooth fit for his essentially naturalistic style. Mr. Bartha is endearingly addled and nebbishy as Max, but his attempts at singing are dubious at best. (The ending really should have been tweaked to avoid exposing his deficiencies in this regard.)
The secondary female roles are largely well played, with Ms. Maxwell handling the smoldering tirades of Merelli’s jealous wife with customary stylishness, Mary Catherine Garrison deploying her period-apt kewpie doll charm in the role of the tenor-infatuated ingénue, and Jennifer Laura Thompson slinking up a storm as the predatory soprano. (The gowns, by Martin Pakledinaz, are easy on the eyes.) In the role of the opera gala chairwoman, however, Brooke Adams (Mr. Shalhoub’s wife) is egregiously miscast, utterly lacking the Margaret Dumont-ishness that the part cries out for.
Once the mechanics of the plot kick in, Mr. Tucci displays a deft hand at the helm, but the sluggish first act could use some juicing. And yet the lack of yeasty comic material is the fundamental problem. Mr. Ludwig’s play draws on many of the classic conventions of farce, which are still workable today, as the writers on “Frasier” handily proved on several occasions, come to think of it.
But “Lend Me a Tenor” achieves true comic delirium only at the curtain call, when the cast cycles through a mimed version of the lunatic plot in about two minutes. Those two minutes are more charming, and fundamentally funnier, than the two and a half hours of hard labor that have come before.
Never underestimate the entertainment value of watching talented people make fools of themselves.
I'm not talking about the embarrassment of tabloid media. Less guilty pleasures are on tap at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, where a raucous revival of Lend Me a Tenor (* * * out of four) opened Sunday.
Ken Ludwig's farce, which follows the backstage shenanigans at a small-time opera company's gala in 1930s Cleveland, doesn't invite subtle gestures to begin with.
But director Stanley Tucci has clearly instructed his ensemble to abandon all inhibitions in the pursuit of a goofy good time.
Granted, some actors are more engaging than others. The most valuable players are Anthony LaPaglia, cast as Tito Merelli, an Italian opera star enlisted to appear at the gala, and Jan Maxwell, who plays his wife. Though these troupers have lent their gifts to a range of roles, LaPaglia is appreciated in particular for his rugged everyman quality, and Maxwell for her old-school elegance.
So it's especially fun to watch them play against type here. Maxwell cuts loose as a tempestuous shrew, LaPaglia as a preening glutton who puts the buffoon in opera buffa. It's hard to imagine two performers who would be funnier screaming at each other in exaggerated Italian accents.
Tucci has the whole cast embrace the physical comedy encouraged by Ludwig's screwball plot, in which the opera company's manager, forced to replace Merelli at the eleventh hour, taps his assistant to impersonate the tenor. In a scene foreshadowing this switcheroo, Merelli teaches the assistant, Max — played by an adorably nerdy Justin Bartha— how to loosen his vocal cords, requiring them to shake and shimmy together through an aria.
Jennifer Laura Thompson gets to vamp it up as Diana, the company's ambitious diva. And a winning Mary Catherine Garrison turns up as Maggie, the manager's daughter and Max's crush, whose schoolgirl demeanor belies wilder impulses.
Curiously, the production's most recognizable star, Tony Shalhoub, seems to enjoy himself the least. The Monk alum plays Saunders, the beleaguered manager, as a stiff, haughty fellow whose perpetual irritability appears to have little to do with his trying circumstances. Raising his hoarse voice to spit out a punch line, he makes comedy look like the hard work it actually is.
Thankfully, one subpar performance doesn't flatten Tenor's high notes, or deflate its giddy spirit.
Audiences from Boca Raton to Baden Baden have been laughing themselves silly at "Lend Me a Tenor" since 1986, when Ken Ludwig's opera buffa was first produced on the West End by Andrew Lloyd Webber. After its 1989 Broadway premiere, show's been done around the world and is a perennial favorite of regional and community theaters in the USA. Not to be denied their own fun, helmer Stanley Tucci and a contingent of Broadway and Hollywood stars toplined by Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia are now lending their glamour to this warhorse, giving a new generation reason to roar.
You have to be a little nuts to do justice to farce, with its maniacal fixations and blinding panics and fears. Tucci & Co. qualify all around, but none more than Tony Shalhoub, who comes off eight seasons as the adorably obsessive TV detective on "Monk," as well as comic foils in such bizarro films as "Galaxy Quest" and "Men In Black," to play Saunders, the beleaguered manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company.
Tout le Cleveland is keen to party in the fall of 1934, but Saunders has just learned that the world famous Italian opera singer known as "Il Stupendo" who is scheduled to appear that night at a gala benefit has disappeared. When the great man does show up at his hotel suite (in John Lee Beatty's tongue-in-cheek design, six doors strategically placed among fussy furnishings done up in faux-French elegance), a series of well-intentioned missteps makes it uncertain that Il Stupendo will ever appear on this or any other opera stage.
It's the classic farce situation -- disaster; denial; recovery; complication; catastrophe -- and it's a joy to watch Shalhoub attack it.
After the initial explosion, executed with splenetic vigor, thesp absorbs the implications of each subsequent setback with deadly calm. But even as he feverishly assesses the potential damage of a no-show we can see the steam coming out of his ears. And by the time he gets on his knees to plead his last-ditch strategy for avoiding disaster, the wild desperation in his eyes is enough to bring out the guys with the butterfly nets.
It's a given that farce turns on the mechanics of its plot. Ken Ludwig, who has penned such farcical gems as "Crazy for You" and "Moon Over Buffalo," is a master of these technical tricks -- the slamming doors and mistaken identities, the split-second collisions of purpose, the confusing double entendres, et al.
But the true comedy depends on characters with super-sized needs and desperate wants, and that's where Tucci's helming pays off -- in well-chiseled perfs from thesps who get Ludwig's sly humor in tossing a glamorous celebrity into the clutches of culture-starved Midwesterners.
There are honest laughs and no condescension in clean perfs of the three ladies (and one bellhop) who throw themselves at their idol: Mary Catherine Garrison's Maggie, the silly girl eager to lose her virginity to a sexy star; Jennifer Laura Thompson's Diana, the soprano determined to screw her way to the Met; Brooke Adams' Julia, the elegant culture vulture who just wants to touch an authentic artist; and -- the most desperate of them all -- Jay Klaitz's opera-mad bellhop, too crazed to care that he's certifiable.
As the object of all this insanity, Anthony LaPaglia, who specializes in deep-thinking men like his Tony-winning Eddie Carbone in "A View from the Bridge" and the brooding TV detective on "Without a Trace," is probably too serious a guy to carry off Tito Merelli's flamboyant egotism.
But LaPaglia looks big and handsome in Martin Pakledinaz's beautifully cut suits (although not as sparkly as the women in their swishy sequined gowns). And when he stands to lose what matters to him most in the world -- his spitfire wife, Maria, played with magnificent abandon by the brilliant Jan Maxwell -- his childish howling is both hilarious and touching.
Thesp also scores in scenes with Justin Bartha as Max, the hapless functionary who finds himself in the terrifying situation of having to suit up in blackface and impersonate Merelli in "Otello." Bartha ("The Hangover"), who has that young heartthrob look, also has the chops of a polished comic actor and he seems made for this part.
For all Tucci's helming savvy, the elaborately choreographed curtain call (a 90 second precis of the entire show) was slightly ragged on the night this reviewer saw it; but a hoot nonetheless, if only to watch Shalhoub stop himself from walking through an invisible stage wall.