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Brooke Adams and Tony Shalhoub (Photo: Joan Marcus)

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Lend Me A Tenor: DC Theatre Scene

by Richard Seff

In the years when I was growing up around Broadway, press agentry wasn’t quite so fancy, and outside a theatre you might see a sign that simply said “A Laff Riot! ” That’s all you needed to know, and I think I’ll resurrect it to describe the madness that goes on onstage at the Music Box where Lend me a Tenor, by Washington DC-based playwright Ken Ludwig, has settled in for what I hope will be a very long run. New York and the world needs it right now, as a counter-terrorist weapon.

Under Stanley Tucci’s firm hand and sure eye for comedy, this first time Broadway director has delivered a zippy farce with all the proper doors onstage slamming, sometimes simultaneously. Young Justin Bartha, new to me but known to those of you who’ve seen The Hangover, starts things off as the goofy assistant to the Cleveland Opera Guild’s director, slightly hysterical from the beginning as he’s lost a tenor. The guest star, Tito Morelli, big name opera star, did not appear at the train station as planned, and is nowhere to be found. It’s only a matter of hours before the curtain is to rise on the gala benefit performance of Otello and until he’s found, the director, the assistant, the director’s daughter who happens to be the girl friend of the assistant, the Chairlady of the Opera Guild’s Board, the leading lady who’s to play opposite the tenor as Desdemona, even the bellboy in the hotel who’s dying to meet him because the kid is an opera nut – all of them are in and out until the singer is found, lost again, and found once more.

I’m a big fan of this play, enjoyed it enormously when it first played Broadway in 1984 with Philip Bosco scoring as the director and Victor Garber playing Max his assistant with great skill. It was a huge hit then, and I suspect it will be again. It’s set in a Cleveland hotel suite in 1934, which means it has nothing to do with today, and though the plot is complicated and occasionally manipulated by the playwright (Ken Ludwig) it’s played with such comic skill that I bought every twist and turn, and laughed out loud till the final curtain. And beyond, for the curtain call is as ingenious as is the rest of the evening .

It’s fun to watch Tony Shalhoub leave “Monk” behind, and turn into “Saunders”, the apoplectic managing director, to see and hear Anthony LaPaglia leave A View From the Bridge (one of his recent dramatic triumphs) and inhabit the mad Italian Morelli, complete with cashmere coat flung over his shoulder, a wild accent, a tempestuous temperament, and even enough of a tenor voice to make us believe (in a farce) he could carry an opera. Justin Bartha makes “Max” a lovable nerd with an even better voice, and it’s only fitting he wins his girl, the airhead “Maggie” by final curtain. Jan Maxwell as Morelli’s wife “Maria” is a hilarious force from her first line to her last. The role is small but it’s well placed, and she’s back for the final scene to play a very big part in the play’s climax. Jay Klaitz is wackily over the top as the Bellboy with the passion for grand opera and grander gestures. Jennifer Laura Thompson (please, ladies, we have so many three-named actresses these days, it’s not good for the green world. You’re using too much electricity lighting up marquees) plays “Diana”, the opera’s leading lady, deliciously. She has one big scene with Morelli in which every line has double meaning, and she’s perfection in spitting each one out to the balcony with comic timing that is so very right for this 1930s setting. Broadway used to be filled with these plays, and the actors who knew how to play them. I don’t know where this cast learned how to play this genre, because they don’t write ‘em like that any more, but they studied well, and it’s all there for us to enjoy.

I don’t mean to be ungallant, but Brooke Adams as the Opera Guild’s Chairlady is lovely to look at but could not turn her beautiful self into the ditzy Helen Hokinson club lady she’s meant to be. It needed a true character actress and Adams is still a dazzling mature leading lady. In private life she is Mrs. Shalhoub, so perhaps that’s why Mr. Tucci decided to try to turn her into a Marion Lorne (I’m sure you don’t remember her, but she was the definitive ditz in the Mr. Peepers series all those eons ago). Mary Boland, Josephine Hull, Vera Vague, Binnie Barnes, more recently Georgia Engel and Marylouise Burke, that’s what “Julia” needed. But hey, it’s great that the Shalhoubs get to work and play together, and Ms. Adams tries real hard and looks absolutely glorious in her silver gown, the one that gets her one of the biggest laughs of the night.

Forget your troubles, c’mon get happy. Be sure to catch Lend me a Tenor, the perfect spring tonic.

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