You could say that Ken Ludwig’s opera-spoofing, door-slamming farcical comedy “Lend Me A Tenor” is back just for laughs. That seems to have been good enough for the audience at the performance I attended. A hit during the 1989-’90 Broadway season, the show is getting its first Broadway revival. It doesn’t matter if you’ve seen it before or not. You can start laughing now.
Of all the various genres in dramatic literature, farce is the most difficult to pull off. Ludwig seems to have mastered the art. While playwright Ludwig has continued to write with considerable success, he has yet to top this winner.
A farce like this also needs a director who can choreograph the action with speed and with a flair for the genre. That guiding light is Stanley Tucci who appears to have gotten everything right. Even recognizing the bravura performances given by everyone in the cast, Tucci is the real star of this production. He may have followed Ludwig’s masterful blueprint, but has certainly put his own signature on much of the action.
An extraordinary cast of farceurs has been gathered to provide the kind of side-splitting laughs that are only too rare these days. This irresistibly inane romp is all about how Max (Justin Bartha), an aspiring, but insecure, singer working as a gofer for a provincial (Cleveland) opera company, finds himself suddenly faced with replacing Tito Merelli (Anthony LaPaglia), a world-class Italian tenor, in “Otello.” It all happens at the last minute when the much publicized singer succumbs to an overdose of liqueur and sedatives. That’s all you really need to know.
Perhaps just a couple more things: Hysteria segues into mass confusion as Saunders (Tony Shalhoub), the opera company’s tyrannical but panic-stricken impresario, is forced to deal not only with Maria (Jan Maxwell), the tenor’s jealous, tempestuous wife, but also with his own coquettish daughter Maggie’s (an adorably squeaky-voiced Mary Catherine Garrison) misguided trysts. Although wooed by the gofer, she also has crush on Merelli, a.k.a. “Il Stupendo.”
The action occurs on the evening of a Opera Guild gala benefit. The setting is a first-class hotel suite (handsomely designed by John Lee Beatty.) It has all the doors required for quick entrances and exits. The time is 1934, a wonderful excuse for costume designer Martin Pakledinaz to come up with some stunning apparel and gowns for the women.
The cast is in good enough physical shape to not only dive into but embrace what is essentially a mixture of mayhem and chaos. Although Bartha has some fine film and TV credits, he is making an impressive Broadway debut as Max, the gofer who yearns to sing — but far be it from me to say more. It would almost be unfair to say that a bespectacled Bartha very quickly becomes an audience favorite. I don’t really like the expression “stopped the show,” but this is what these actors managed to do with astonishing and unprecedented regularity.
Bug-eyed Jay Klaitz is a hoot (and has a great voice) as the aggressive, autograph-hounding bellhop. It would be virtually impossible not to relish the sheer force and comical fury of Jan Maxwell’s extravagantly extroverted performance as Tito’s tempestuous wife, Maria. Anthony LaPaglia has evidently come out of an early retirement (according to his program bio). He was last on Broadway in his Tony Award-winning performance in the 1997 revival of “A View From the Bridge,” but we are rewarded with his hardly subtle but supremely hilarious performance as the womanizing Il Stupendo.
Shalhoub maybe best known for his role in the hit TV series “Monk” but he will be known now to Broadway audiences for his explosively funny performance as the cigar-smoking, stressed-out impresario. Shalhoub’s lovely off-stage wife, Brooke Adams, is just dandy as Julia, the awestruck chairman of the opera guild. And Jennifer Laura Thompson is seriously seductive as Diana, the diva with unbridled desires. Forgive me for gushing, but there is no other play or musical currently on Broadway to rival “Lend Me a Tenor” for solid laughs and the sheer joy of it. ****
“Lend Me A Tenor,” the Music Box Theater, 239 West 45th Street. $86.50 to $126.50 and premium seating $191.50; Saturday evening $251.50. 212-239-6200.