Wednesday, June 2, 2010

REVIEW: Lend Me a Tenor

Review of the May 29 matinee performance. At the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, New York City. 2 hours, including one intermission. Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha, Brooke Adams, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jeff Klaitz, Jan Maxwell and Jennifer Laura Thompson. A farce in two acts by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Stanley Tucci.  Closes August 15.

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.

Justin Bartha and Tony Shalhoub

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!?

Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams

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.

(Clockwise from left):
Brooke Adams, Mary Catherine Garrison,
Tony Shalhoub and Jay Klaitz

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.

Jennifer Laura Thompson and Justin Bartha

Anthony LaPaglia and Jan Maxwell

The second she takes the stage, Jan Maxwell (Tony nominee this season for this role as well as her leading role in The Royal Family) commands your attention.  She is riveting, and thankfully only on in one scene per act.  Were she on more, I think they'd be taking patrons out on stretchers after passing out from laughing so hard.  Her line delivery - in a THICK Italian accent - is impeccable, and her pauses are as hilarious as her shrieks and screams.  Then there is her physical comedy.  I may never look at a hotel bed the same way again.

Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub and Justin Bartha

Which brings me to the trio of leads, each distinct, each broad and yet nuanced, and each with the polish of seasoned professionals.  Tony Shalhoub, best known as Monk on TV, is a commanding presence in his own right.  And whereas Bosco bellowed his way through the role the first time around, Mr. Shalhoub is much more carefully devious, saving the big gun blustering for when he really needs it.  Talk about timing!  And the way he uses the full range and register of his voice to force you to listen to every syllable he says is masterful. He, like the rest of his co-stars, attacks the physical demands of the role with just as impeccable timing.  The man is a scream from start to finish.

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.)

Anthony LaPaglia and Justin Bartha

Finally, I am so thrilled that Justin Bartha has done such a superb job with a difficult role in his Broadway debut.  Most everyone knows Mr. Bartha from his co-starring role in The Hangover (he's the groom to be that goes missing), but I find him much more useful and entertaining in the National Treasure films.  His charm and charisma are just as charming and charismatic on stage as they are on screen.  And he is the center of the show.  Best of all, he resists making his character too nerdy, balancing it with some serious singing and ultimately a growing confidence that proves to be a laugh riot.  He is rarely off stage and must alternately be the center of attention and second banana to whomever he is sharing a scene with.  It helps, too, that he is movie star handsome, and takes the stage with the level of professionalism often reserved for actors who have made their entire careers on Broadway.  Let's all hope that this will not be the one and only time he appears on the New York stage.  That would be a sincere waste of natural stage presence and acting finesse.

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!

Grade: A

(Photos by Joan Marcus)

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