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Anthony La Paglia and Justin Bartha in Lend Me a Tenor. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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A classic farce brings big laughs to Broadway - Time Out New York

By David Cote
Time Out New York

FIVE STARS! CRITIC'S PICK!

You could read the text of Ken Ludwig’s 1989 farce for chuckles, but the real guffaws come with the dozens of bits that the cast and director unearth in rehearsal. Often such nonverbal jokes are hardest to describe in a review. For example, there’s this moment when Tony Shalhoub’s apoplectic producer, Saunders, inches his chair forward as he lays into timid assistant Max (Bartha). Later, the awesome Shalhoub does this thing with a spinning ottoman that looks like a hamster on a wheel. Several items get spat or tossed into the audience: pills, fruit, a cork, a rose… Okay, I can see you’re not finding this exactly sidesplitting, so let me spell it out: Lend Me a Tenor is the most howlingly funny and ingeniously staged laugh machine to hit Broadway in years. Clear?

Stanley Tucci makes a slam-bang Broadway directing debut, with the brio and instinct for timing that you would expect from a seasoned actor. He has, moreover, inspired a cast of comic equals (even in the smaller roles) to harmonize the insanity, land the gags and top each other for the daffy monomania that is the sine qua non of farce. And what a vehicle they have: Ludwig’s old-fashioned screwball door-slammer is structurally perfect, all missed connections, mistaken identities, girls hiding in closets and an enraged impresario throttling his deceased tenor—multiple times.

Let’s back up: It’s 1934 in Cleveland, and Saunders is presenting Otello for the locals. His bibulous, lecherous leading man, Tito Merelli (LaPaglia, busting through the Italian stereotype to something sweeter) arrives with indigestion, arguing with his harpy of a wife (Maxwell). Saunders’s daughter, Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison), would like personal time with the divo, but so would vixenish soprano Diana (Jennifer Laura Thompson). When Merelli appears to croak from too much wine and barbiturates, Saunders has the brilliant idea of substituting amateur singer Max. The subterfuge works brilliantly, until everything goes to pieces.

Tenor contains an embarrassment of comic riches, from Jan Maxwell’s I-killa-you Mediterranean harridan to Jay Klaitz’s wide-eyed bellhop-cum-opera-fanboy. There’s no point in telling you how superbly fun all this is: Go now, and don’t wait for the fat lady to sing.

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