Lend Me a Tenor
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
April 8, 2010
The thunderous ovation that occurs at the conclusion of the new Broadway revival of Ken Ludwig's now-classic farce, Lend Me a Tenor, is the kind usually reserved for an opera virtuoso or a showstopping bit of stagecraft, like a falling chandelier or an onstage helicopter. But the crackerjack cast of this latest Tenor earns their rapturous applause by using perhaps the most old-fashioned bit of showstopping stagecraft there is: superlative acting. Theirs is comic playing of the highest order, and their inspired, go-for-broke performances propel the audience to the heights of comic ecstasy.
The plot of Tenor is a textbook case of Farce/Sitcom 101. Renowned opera star Tito Merelli is due in Cleveland for a command performance of Verdi's Otello. The uptight local producer, Saunders, charges his nebbish-y assistant, Max, with keeping the notoriously mischievous Tito out of trouble until showtime. Of course, no sooner has Saunders said that than trouble ensues on all fronts. There are two tempting vixens who have Tito in their crosshairs: opera diva Diana, and Max's bright-eyed fiancee, Maggie (who is also Saunders's daughter); Tito's ragingly jealous wife, Maria, who is hell-bent on...well, she's just hell-bent; and Tito's own insistence on having a drink or two before the show. Before long, mistaken identities abound, doors are slamming, characters are hiding in bathrooms and closets, and everyone is off to the proverbial races.
Director Stanley Tucci handles Tenor's three-ring silliness with sly, rambunctious confidence and a touch of (dare I say?) danger. Nothing is sacred here, not even the fourth wall. A good many things get spit out of the actors's mouths onto anyone within the first five rows, and on the night I attended a dry direct address ad lib leveled the crowd. Unpredictability rules every facet of the production as Tucci ratchets the characters's emotions up to such a frenzied state there's no telling what they'll do. When the ever-widening gap between their expectations and the story's outcome explodes (thanks to both Tucci and Ludwig's deftly goofy plotting), the audience reaps the benefits.
More than anything, though, Tenor is an actor's showcase, and Tucci has assembled a comic all-star team. Leading the way is Tony Shalhoub's hilariously over-the-top performance as Saunders, and Jan Maxwell's frenetically volcanic turn as Maria. Shalhoub appears in well over half the play, while Maxwell is relegated to less than a third of it, and yet both make equally indelible impressions. The excellent Anthony LaPaglia is charming as the laid back and egocentric Tito, and Justin Bartha is impressive as Max, delivering an effortlessly flustered performance while doing most of the heavy lifting (he's onstage for almost the entire show). The supporting cast—which features Brooke Adams (as Julia, a rich opera benefactor), Mary Catherine Garrison (as Maggie), Jennifer Laura Thompson (as Diana), and Jay Klaitz (as a fawning, opera-singing hotel bellhop)—is also stellar.
I could go on and on, but I'll leave the last word to my companion for the evening, who remarked that Lend Me a Tenor was probably the very best time she'd ever had at a Broadway show. I imagine there will many theatergoers who feel the same way after seeing this exemplary production.