Theatrical Highlights of the Year

1. Lend Me a Tenor. April 13, @ the Music Box Theatre. Don’t you love farce? I do. But it’s a genre that is very difficult to pull off successfully. Ken Ludwig’s 80s comedy isn’t particularly funny on the page, but first-time Broadway director Stanley Tucci did a marvelous job bringing out the laughs. The ensemble was mostly terrific: Anthony LaPaglia as the opera singer, Tony Shalhoub as the harried producer, Mary Catherine Garrison as the virginal but hormonal ingenue and Jennifer Laura Thompson as the resident diva were all quite fun. Justin Bartha made an amusing Broadway debut as the sad-sack mistaken for the great divo (even if his vocal prowess brought Ohio’s taste into question). But it was Jan Maxwell as the fiery wife of the opera singer who walked away with the evening, in a hilarious performance.

2. Anyone Can Whistle. April 11 @ the City Center. One of the biggest flop musicals in Broadway history was given a rare NYC revival courtesy of Encores for Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday. I doubt it could be any better than this production. The book is a hot box of crazy, with ideas and satire swirling around a wonderful score. It was superlatively cast with Sutton Foster and Raul Esparza, but it was Donna Murphy in an inspired performance who put the show in her pocket and took it home. Casey Nicholaw directed and choreographed with great ease. Original cast member Harvey Evans helped Nicholaw to reconstruct the Cookie Chase and the lunacy was inspired.

3. A Little Night Music. July 31 @ the Walter Kerr Theatre. While I love the musical itself, this production didn’t do very much for me when it opened a year ago and didn’t make the cut for ’09. I don’t generally put revisits on the list, but this is one exception that I’m more than willing to make. Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch joined the cast during the summer and the maudlin evening was transformed into something far more pleasant. I’ll never love the production with its drab sets and costumes, anemic orchestrations and glacial pacing, but Bernadette is a sparkplug that the production needed from the very beginning.

4. I Do! I Do! August 21 @ the Westport Country Playhouse. This pleasant production was so charming and so polished, I was hoping someone would bring it to NY for a nice off-Broadway run. Kate Baldwin and Lewis Cleale starred as Agnes and Michael, a couple whose marriage is explored during the musical’s two hour running time. The show was an unusual Broadway property in the 60s: a two-hander musical with full orchestra. Gower Champion created a wonderful period piece (based on de Hartog’s The Four Poster) which holds up surprisingly well. Elements may have dated, but marriage – and the good, bad and ugly that go with it – remain the same. Baldwin was enchanting and Cleale was delightful.

5. Our Town. August 27 @ the Barrow Street Theatre. I was a bit late to this party, but I greatly admired David Cromer’s spare, bare bones production of the Thornton Wilder classic. I have to confess that until I saw this, I had never read nor seen the play before. Sitting in the front row, I was privileged almost immediately to Cromer’s performance as the Stage Manager (which was a brilliant, non actory showing). He opened up the audience’s imagination, making us work to get into the world of Grover’s Corners. What he was preparing us for was the startling and unbelievably moving display of theatrical realism in the third act. It was a coup de théâtre of the highest order.

6. Brief Encounter. September 25 @ Studio 54. Imaginative, witty and ever-so-British, this import from the Kneehigh in UK made a stop in Brooklyn and the Guthrie before finding its Broadway berth via Roundabout – and with much of its original cast intact. Better late than never. This charming adaptation of the David Lean film of the same name, based on Noel Coward’s Still Life uses theatrical imagery, imagination and Coward’s music to tell the story of an unrequited affair between a British housewife and doctor. A swell cast, esp. Annette McLaughlin in a choice supporting role as Beryl and one of the best bands on Broadway made this one a real treasure. Wish they had recorded a cast album.

7. The Scottsboro Boys. October 7 @ the Lyceum Theatre. One of the best musicals I’ve seen in the last five years. A horrible chapter in our nation’s history is given life through an archaic and racist form of entertainment. Kander and Ebb’s score – their final collaboration – is as rich and fulfilling as their classics of the 60s and 70s. The musical pushed envelopes in storytelling and was not without controversy over its use of minstrelsy to tell the story, but it was a story of empowerment and abandonment. Director/choreographer Susan Stroman returned to top form with some of the best work of her career. The brilliant ensemble was led by John Cullum as the Interlocutor and Joshua Henry as Haywood Patterson, in what should be a break out role for the young actor.

Quote of the Day: Ben Brantley on Jan Maxwell

Speaking of the “Royal Family,” I’m especially heartened that Jan Maxwell was nominated for best actress for her smart, delicate and eccentrically witty performance in that play, as well as for her supporting work in “Lend Me a Tenor.” Ms. Maxwell is one of the best and most undervalued actresses we now have in the New York Theater, and if this helps keep her in our line of vision, I’m all for it. And I hope she wears a really terrific dress to the Golden Globes – I mean, the Tonys. Psst, Ms. Maxwell, I know somebody who works at Chanel.

– Ben Brantley, in his Tony nominations round-up

"Lend Me a Tenor"

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.