Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Theater Review: Lend Me a Tenor

Location: Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street, NY, NY

Website: Official Lend Me a Tenor site

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

My Review: To interpret and pick apart Lend Me a Tenor is to do it a great disservice. This is a show that’s meant to be enjoyed in the moment for the slapstick farce that it is (complete with multiple slamming doors), so it’s best to go into it with a relaxed mind and no agenda. Because if at any time you find yourself questioning the absurdity of the plot or wondering if some of the jokes are in poor taste, you’ve pretty much already ruined what could have been a delightful time at the theater.

The story is as silly and unrealistic as any mistaken-identity comedy: Famed opera tenor Tito Merelli (LaPaglia) is coming to Cleveland in 1938 to perform the lead in Verdi’s Otello (based on Shakespeare’s Othello). Local opera manager Saunders (Shalhoub) is exasperated at having to cater to Merelli’s larger than life personality, and his mousy, nervous go-fer, Max (Bartha), is eager to please and hopes to steal some time with Merelli to discuss his own dreams of opera stardom. All the ladies (including Saunders’ daughter and the production’s leading soprano) are scheming to romance the beloved tenor, with the exception of his own wife, Maria (Maxwell), who is fed up with all the traveling they have to do for his career and the various love affairs he has along the way.

After an accidental prescription drug overdose leads Saunders and Max to believe Merelli is dead (he’s really just very, very asleep), they cook up a plan for the show to go on with Max playing the lead in disguise (because Max just happens to know the entire score of Otello by heart, naturally). When the sleepy tenor awakes alone in his hotel suite and late for the performance, he quickly dons the spare Otello costume and heads for the opera house. So now there are two Merelli’s, each dressed as Otello, one of whom is assumed to be a deranged impersonator, and both creating a sensation with Merelli’s various female admirers.

Tenor starts off a bit slow, due to the delayed arrival of Merelli (the catalyst of the entire production), but once LaPaglia walks onstage with all his blustering Italian bravado, it’s go time. The credit for the show’s success is mostly due to the three leading men, who play off each other well and just seem to be having a great time together. Shalhoub is equal parts furious, stressed, and maniacal—everything a performing arts manager should be. LaPaglia manages to make Merelli the larger-than-life character that he is, but still gives him enough humanity to keep him from being a complete caricature. The scene where he gives Max opera career advice—without a touch of irony—is one of Tenor’s best moments.

The biggest standout is Justin Bartha’s portrayal of Max. Up until now I only knew him as “the guy who was barely in The Hangover,” so it was a pleasant surprise to see how well he handled what is more or less the lead role. Max could very easily be a one-note character—the nerdy assistant who kowtows to his boss’s every command—but Bartha’s Max has his own ambitions and a genuine affection for his new mentor, Merelli. And he’s funny! Max goes from being his own nebbish self, to a schmoozing lothario when disguised as Merelli, and back again, often within a matter of minutes. While it is of course ridiculous that anyone would mistake Max for Merelli—yes, the black makeup and wig of the Otello costume helps, but that can’t disguise the differing body types and voices—when it’s this much fun to watch, who cares?

The women of the cast are mainly there to be foils for the mistaken-identity scheme, and admirable foils they are in their stunning period-appropriate gowns and unbridled lust for a man of Merelli’s talents. The notable (and Tony Award-nominated) exception is Jan Maxwell as Merelli’s long-suffering wife, Maria. And long-suffering though she may be, she certainly isn’t quiet about it. She comically rages at her husband for all that he puts her through, then turns on the exaggerated Italian charm at the drop of a hat. In the limited time she has onstage, she manages to make Maria a woman who knows how to use justifiable anger to get whatever she wants.

Bottom Line: Lend Me a Tenor asks for a lot of suspension of disbelief and that you not be offended by the whole two-white-men-dressed-as-a-black-man thing. And if these are things you can do, then you’re in for a treat as a cast of talented comedians perform a ridiculous story that has one true purpose: To provide the audience with a really fun two and a half hours.

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