Leaving the Music Box Theatre after seeing the infectious new revival of Lend Me a Tenor, I found myself unable to stop humming “La Donna è Mobile,” the famed aria from Rigoletto. No matter what I did or what song I played, it remained at the back of mind – buoyant, effervescent and melodic. The aria is heard as the house lights go down and curtain comes up on Ken Ludwig’s popular farce, instantly grabbing you and immersing you into the roller coaster ride of sidesplitting comedy about to enfold onstage. Like that aria, this new production sings out with gusto that will leave you buoyant, effervescent and smiling long after you have left the theatre.
The original production was a big hit in 1989. Starring Victor Garber, Tovah Feldshuh, and Tony-winning Phil Bosco, it ran for over a year and instantly became a staple in stock and community productions. (Its world premiere was in London in 1986). The plot in brief: the Cleveland Grand Opera is expecting a world-renowned Italian tenor for their gala. When he becomes indisposed, hijinks, misunderstandings and a hell of a lot of door slamming ensues. As a farce, the play itself is merely good, not great. Ludwig’s text as a whole feels more like a rough draft of a greater comedy that has yet to be realized. There are some missed opportunities (especially with the Bellhop, who should have more to do) and its ending seems somewhat abrupt and rushed. However, this production is so laugh out loud hilarious and features a top notch ensemble of actors, that it’s incredibly easy to both forget and forgive the shortcomings of its writing.
Anthony LaPaglia shines as Tito, the egomaniacal tenor in question whose propensity for women and booze causes most of the evening’s chaos, and is especially memorable for the fearlessness of his physicality, particularly in the scene where he gives the impressionable would-be tenor Max a lesson in voice and relaxation. It must be seen for full effect. Tony Shalhoub is in full cigar-chomping mode as the temperamental producer Sanders. Jay Klaitz is a comic revelation as the endearing Bellhop (and operaphile). Movie star Justin Bartha makes an impressive Broadway debut as the nebbishy Max, who vacillates between the sadsack producer’s assistant and confident opera diva when masquerading as Tito with considerable aplomb.
Mary Catherine Garrison winningly proves that ingenues have dirty dreams as Saunders’ daughter and Max’s girlfriend, and whose scream in the second act is one of the funniest moments I’ve seen on this or any other stage. The ever-reliable Jennifer Laura Thompson, always a welcome presence, taps into her quirky comic skills as the seductively ambitious diva Diana. Brooke Adams is far too striking to convince as a dowdy, past-her-prime matron, but the actress – mercilessly decked out like the Chrysler building – scores some big laughs.
Jan Maxwell effortlessly walks away with the entire evening as Maria, Tito’s fiery, jealous wife. Maxwell, who was last seen giving a bravura star turn in the shimmering revival of The Royal Family, hits another home run as she rages, seethes and breaks down with an exaggerated Italian accent. Whenever she is onstage she is in total command, somehow maintaining her character’s elegance in spite of her antics. She brought the first act to a crashing halt by merely hissing. After the disappointments of To Be or Not to Be and Coram Boy (which deserved to be a hit), it is especially welcoming to see Maxwell having such a banner season. Ms. Maxwell is one of the unquestionable treasures of the NY theatre scene, equally adept in both plays and musicals. If there is a God, Maxwell should be nominated for a Tony (for this and The Royal Family) – and she should win.
Then, of course, there is the director. Stanley Tucci, in his first Broadway directing gig, is as gifted a director as he is actor. His task is not an easy one; staging a successful farce is incredibly difficult as it involves laser-sharp timing from the loudest door slam to the tiniest gesture. His work here is infectious and inventive, bringing lightning pace and visual gigs, but also a certain touch of humanity that wouldn’t normally seem possible in pure farce. Tucci’s directorial touch is solid 14 karat gold. Anyone sitting center orchestra should also watch out for flying objects – all spit takes and such gags are directed out at the audience, a rather zany, inspired touch from a genius actor turned director.
John Lee Beatty’s sumptuous set captures the elegance of a posh hotel suite in the 30s, so vividly realized its as though a penthouse was cut in half and placed onstage. Martin Pakledinaz has once again outdone himself with his period costumes. His eye-popping outfits worn by his leading ladies are especially memorable (the image of Jan Maxwell casting off her fur-lined wrap is a vivid image that will aways stick with me).
Lend Me a Tenor is undoubtedly the hit comedy of the season, and the funniest thing this side of The Norman Conquests. I look forward to making another visit, especially to revel in the genius of Ms. Maxwell, but also in appreciation of Mr. Tucci’s immense achievement. Oh – and for that tour de force curtain call, which is worth the price of admission alone.