Sunday, April 11, 2010

Epic Silliness

Lend Me a Tenor
Written by Ken Ludwig
Directed by Stanley Tucci

Starring Anthony LaPaglia, Tony Shalhoub, Justin Bartha, Brooke Adams, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jennifer Laura Thompson, Jay Klaitz, Jan Maxwell

Performances began March 12, 2010

Music Box Theater
239 West 45th Street

Twenty years ago, Ken Ludwig's multi-door-slamming Broadway farce Lend Me a Tenor showcased two of the nimblest and funniest farceurs in one show: Victor Garber and Phil Bosco, the latter winning a well-deserved Tony for his breathlessly, physically funny portrayal of Saunders, Cleveland opera impresario, circa 1934, whose gala evening is ruined by the possible death of the great Italian tenor Tito Morelli, whom everyone has paid to see in Verdi's Otello.

Ludwig's comedy wasn't particularly memorable even then, huffing and puffing away energetically but at times exhaustingly. There are a fair number of good laughs, an even higher amount of groaners, and just enough skillful physical comedy to propel it all forward.

Of course, a gifted cast helped that original production, bookended by the irrepressible Bosco and magisterial Garber as Max, the nerdish sidekick who replaces Morelli as the black-faced Moor (don't ask), the main cause of much mistaken-identity mayhem, pratfalling and—of course—door-slamming. Providing sturdy support were Tovah Feldshuh, Jane Connell, J. Smith-Cameron and Ron Holgate.

Stanley Tucci's current staging, while not quite a door-to-door howler, is no slouch in the energy department thanks to its cohesive comedic cast: Anthony LaPaglia's gregariously hilarious Tito Morelli, Jan Maxwell's boisterously diva-ish Maria Morelli, Jay Klaitz's monstrously needy fanboy/bellhop, Mary Catherine Garrison's squeaky Maggie (Max's girlfriend) and Jennifer Laura Thompson's sultry Diana (the opera's Desdemona).

But it's the main men who, as in 1989, carry the show on their shoulders. Tony Shalhoub doesn't have Bosco's purely effortless stage command, yet he has superb timing and can amusingly move from brash anger to wild desperation in the blink of an eye. The revelation is Justin Bartha, who might even be an improvement on the heretofore indelible Garner: Bartha's Max, a young Woody Allen-ish nebbish, reaches classic comic heights after donning black-face, when he dodges confused (and ravenous) women and a confused (and ravenous) bellhop.

Tucci's frantically-paced production plays out on John Lee Beatty's maze-like hotel-room set, whose quintet of slammable doors accentuates the epic silliness Tenor abounds in. As in the original, the curtain call finds the terrifically able octet giving a delirious re-run of the entire madcap action in two minutes, a sped-up silent-movie cliché that's a perfect cap on a vibrant evening of hilarity.

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