April 14, 2010

"Lend Me a Tenor" Hits the High Notes

Everybody knows the old show business adage, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But my friends who are actors also say there’s nothing more satisfying than the sound of laughter coming across the footlights.  If the latter is true, then the folks in the new revival of Lend Me a Tenor, which currently has them rolling in the aisles at The Music Box, should be deeply satisfied. And that’s despite the lukewarm reviews they’ve gotten from some grumpy professional critics like the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood. 

A few of the pros, like the ubiquitous Peter Filichia, confess that they’re not all that fond of farce.  You know, the kind of low-brow humor that relies on mistaken identities, outlandish situations, broad physical humor, silly word play, a dash of sexual innuendo and a heavy dose of slamming doors (Lend Me a Tenor has five).  And yet, audiences around the world have been tickled by this kind of comedy for centuries.

Other naysayers like The New Yorker’s John Lahr have complained that the show doesn’t have anything substantial to say.  But sometimes, you don’t want to ponder the problems of the world. You just want to have a little escapist fun. And this production provides plenty of that. My normally sedate husband K laughed so hard that he almost did a couple of spit takes himself. 

Here’s the set up: it’s 1934 and the head of an opera company in Cleveland has engaged a famous Italian opera star to perform in a production of Othello. The impresario has a wimpy assistant with singing aspirations of his own, a headstrong daughter who yearns to meet the skirt-chasing star, a scheming soprano and a pushy board chairwoman.  The opera singer has a jealous wife and a fanatical admirer in the bellhop at the hotel where the action takes place. When the star appears to die after consuming too much wine and too many pills an hour or so before the performance, the assistant is pressed into impersonating him and —ta-da!—farcical mayhem ensues.

The show is directed by Stanley Tucci, the versatile actor who made his Broadway debut back in 1982 but who has been enjoying a marvelous ride over the past couple of years with juicy parts in movies like “The Devil Wears Prada,” “Julie & Julia” and “The Lovely Bones.” But Tucci’s wife Kate died of cancer last May and I can’t help thinking that this production is the result of his looking for a way to make himself laugh.  He directs with a sure hand, devising lots of original bits that layer on the laughs. He has also recruited some very talented friends to help.  

Tony Shalhoub, Tucci’s co-star in the great 1996 indie film “Big Night” but now most famous for the cable crime show “Monk” that ended an eight-season run last year, plays the impresario with the appropriately outrageous twitchiness of a man who's always on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Shalhoub’s real-life wife Brooke Adams is miscast as the board chairwoman but seems so delighted to be in on the hijinks that I almost didn't mind (click here to read a New York Magazine piece on the couple.) 

Anthony LaPaglia, who completed his own popular TV series “Without a Trace” last year, is having such a ball as the egotistic opera star that he continues the merrymaking in his Playbill bio, which ends with the statement “Anthony is pleased to come out of early retirement so that Stanley Tucci could make good on a decades-old threat to ‘ruin his career.’”

I don’t know if Broadway regulars Mary Catherine Garrison and Jan Maxwell knew Tucci before but they’re both terrific too. Even in top-shelf company like this, Maxwell, in particular, is such an energy source that I don’t know why some playwright hasn’t written a show specifically for her. (Click here to see her in action.)

The real surprise for me was Justin Bartha, who is making his Broadway debut in the pivotal role of the wimpy assistant.  Bartha has a blossoming movie career (he co-starred in last year’s comedy hit “The Hangover” and has already filmed a romantic comedy opposite Catherine-Zeta Jones) but his performance in Lend Me a Tenor makes me hope that he'll be one of the movie stars who makes regular returns to the stage.

The last time Lend Me a Tenor played on Broadway back in 1989, Philip Bosco gave a Tony-winning performance as the impresario, Victor Garber was the assistant and Tovah Feldshuh the opera singer’s jealous wife.  That production ran for 476 performances. If the theater gods are doing their job, this one should run at least that long too.


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