Audiences from Boca Raton to Baden Baden have been laughing themselves silly at “Lend Me a Tenor” since 1986, when Ken Ludwig’s opera buffa was first produced on the West End by Andrew Lloyd Webber. After its 1989 Broadway premiere, show’s been done around the world and is a perennial favorite of regional and community theaters in the USA. Not to be denied their own fun, helmer Stanley Tucci and a contingent of Broadway and Hollywood stars toplined by Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia are now lending their glamour to this warhorse, giving a new generation reason to roar.
You have to be a little nuts to do justice to farce, with its maniacal fixations and blinding panics and fears. Tucci & Co. qualify all around, but none more than Tony Shalhoub, who comes off eight seasons as the adorably obsessive TV detective on “Monk,” as well as comic foils in such bizarro films as “Galaxy Quest” and “Men In Black,” to play Saunders, the beleaguered manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company.
Tout le Cleveland is keen to party in the fall of 1934, but Saunders has just learned that the world famous Italian opera singer known as “Il Stupendo” who is scheduled to appear that night at a gala benefit has disappeared. When the great man does show up at his hotel suite (in John Lee Beatty’s tongue-in-cheek design, six doors strategically placed among fussy furnishings done up in faux-French elegance), a series of well-intentioned missteps makes it uncertain that Il Stupendo will ever appear on this or any other opera stage.
It’s the classic farce situation — disaster; denial; recovery; complication; catastrophe — and it’s a joy to watch Shalhoub attack it.
After the initial explosion, executed with splenetic vigor, thesp absorbs the implications of each subsequent setback with deadly calm. But even as he feverishly assesses the potential damage of a no-show we can see the steam coming out of his ears. And by the time he gets on his knees to plead his last-ditch strategy for avoiding disaster, the wild desperation in his eyes is enough to bring out the guys with the butterfly nets.
It’s a given that farce turns on the mechanics of its plot. Ken Ludwig, who has penned such farcical gems as “Crazy for You” and “Moon Over Buffalo,” is a master of these technical tricks — the slamming doors and mistaken identities, the split-second collisions of purpose, the confusing double entendres, et al.
But the true comedy depends on characters with super-sized needs and desperate wants, and that’s where Tucci’s helming pays off — in well-chiseled perfs from thesps who get Ludwig’s sly humor in tossing a glamorous celebrity into the clutches of culture-starved Midwesterners.
There are honest laughs and no condescension in clean perfs of the three ladies (and one bellhop) who throw themselves at their idol: Mary Catherine Garrison’s Maggie, the silly girl eager to lose her virginity to a sexy star; Jennifer Laura Thompson’s Diana, the soprano determined to screw her way to the Met; Brooke Adams’ Julia, the elegant culture vulture who just wants to touch an authentic artist; and — the most desperate of them all — Jay Klaitz’s opera-mad bellhop, too crazed to care that he’s certifiable.
As the object of all this insanity, Anthony LaPaglia, who specializes in deep-thinking men like his Tony-winning Eddie Carbone in “A View from the Bridge” and the brooding TV detective on “Without a Trace,” is probably too serious a guy to carry off Tito Merelli’s flamboyant egotism.
But LaPaglia looks big and handsome in Martin Pakledinaz’s beautifully cut suits (although not as sparkly as the women in their swishy sequined gowns). And when he stands to lose what matters to him most in the world — his spitfire wife, Maria, played with magnificent abandon by the brilliant Jan Maxwell — his childish howling is both hilarious and touching.
Thesp also scores in scenes with Justin Bartha as Max, the hapless functionary who finds himself in the terrifying situation of having to suit up in blackface and impersonate Merelli in “Otello.” Bartha (“The Hangover”), who has that young heartthrob look, also has the chops of a polished comic actor and he seems made for this part.
For all Tucci’s helming savvy, the elaborately choreographed curtain call (a 90 second precis of the entire show) was slightly ragged on the night this reviewer saw it; but a hoot nonetheless, if only to watch Shalhoub stop himself from walking through an invisible stage wall.