Thursday, August 5, 2010

Lend Me a Tenor -- at the Music Box -- only until August 15th!

What is it with Justin Bartha? His bio in the Playbill for Lend Me a Tenor is dreadful, citing only films, not a hint of any stage experience or training, and there his name is above the title, sharing top billing with Tony Shalhoub and Anthony LaPaglia.

Who is this guy?

OK, one of the films cited was “The Hangover,” of which I have heard many great things and I really, really will get around to renting it. Still, the first 36 words of Bartha’s Playbill bio -- after saying this is his Broadway debut -- are about this movie. I was totally prepared to despise him and all of Broadway for succumbing to the Hollywood invasion.

Strike one on me.

Bartha was fabulous. Hilarious, a rubber-bodied everyman with multiple voices, he more than held his own with the Monk-free Shalhoub and had utterly delightful scenes with LaPaglia.

Lend Me a Tenor takes place in a hotel suite in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1934. Many a 1930s movie opened with the cast (a head or ¾ shot + character name + actor name) then ended with, “A good cast is worth repeating.” The cast of Lend Me a Tenor is worth lauding.

Tony Shalhoub as Saunders, a would-be impresario of Cleveland opera, full of himself, a wannabe mogul. Shalhoub is suave, temperamental, physically loose and tough and funny.
Anthony LaPaglia as Tito Merelli, a world-renowned tenor, a nice Italian boy who loves wine, women, and song in any order. LaPaglia is warm, strong, and impervious to pain -- I mean that Aussie is tough -- and hilarious and sweet and winning.
Justin Bartha as Max, a wimpy assistant to the would-be impresario, stumbling over his dreams of operatic greatness and love. Bartha was the surprise for me, irrepressible energy, physical and vocal control, and fun fun fun. So Thirties, as he ought to be. His transformation from dweeb to sophisticated opera star and back was remarkable.
Mary Catherine Garrison as Maggie, the impresario’s daughter with a bird in hand in Max, while she yearns for a romantic “fling” with an Italian opera star who’d kissed her palm and made her faint. Garrison was charming, delirious sweetness.
Jennifer Laura Thompson as Diana, the Desdemona, a sultry seductress prepared to do anything to garner Merelli’s favor, using her favors to get him to do her a favor and get her out of Cleveland and on to New York. Thompson slinks around the stage in fabulous dresses or a towel, singing just the right lines. A strong, sexy, funny, and really likeable characterization.
Jan Maxwell as Maria, a traditional Italian wife. This was great casting, since one would be hard-pressed to find a woman who looked less like a long-suffering Italian wife than leggy, blonde, glamorous Jan Maxwell. The bitter wrangling between Tito and Maria is perfection.
Brooke Adams as Julia, that society lady in Thirties movies, who runs charitable events all over town, presides over committees, and is the driving force behind the Cleveland Opera. Initially present only over the phone, Adams makes a fabulous entrance in a glittering silver spangled gown and tiara. Many a woman might kill for that gown.
Jay Klaitz as the Bellhop. A damn good tenor himself, he pushes himself into the hotel suite where all the action occurs, and made me sure I knew where the play was going.

Strike two on me.

This is a wonderful cast, pitch perfect, energetic (on a Wednesday evening performance after an equally strenuous matinee). The prowess of these performers inspires, the elasticity of the actors’ bodies and voices is a joy. This is stagecraft.

Ken Ludwig’s script is sharp, speedy, sometimes breathless, always funny, terribly clever, and didn’t go where this skeptic expected it to go. Cheers.

Precise yet freeing direction by Stanley Tucci allowed this cast to fly -- this must have been fun and torture, to maintain immediacy along with the mathematical precision that farce requires. Cheers. Only one or two moments in the two-and-a-half hour play slowed down for me, and then a clever repetition would make the pause worthwhile.

The deceptively simple set by John Lee Beatty sets the stage for an American brand of PG-rated bedroom farce with five doors slamming away.

Martin Pakledinaz designed swinging cloaks and skirts and evening togs, perfect period costumes worn with aplomb by a grateful cast.

Paul Huntley designed perfect hair and wigs.

Kenneth Posner’s lighting design was simple then clever; Peter Hylenski’s sound design clear and inconspicuous as it ought to be.

This is Broadway. Lend Me a Tenor is well put together and more than the sum of its parts.

And I like the Music Box Theatre better than the Walter Kerr.

[Ridiculous note – from a character point of view, I should think Othello would be a baritone. Maybe even a bass baritone. Why is he a tenor? I know this doesn’t matter, I just don’t get it. No wonder I don’t like opera.]

[Grumpy note -- The only flaw of the evening was the audience. Yes, they laughed, they enjoyed the show (when certain people behind me and to my right weren’t talking). But when did people become incapable of spending 15 minutes without a backlit screen? From my seat in the first mezz, I watched a woman play a video game on her iPad during intermission. And the fellow next to me just could not live without reading his e-mail on his PDA during the play. Not during the intermission. During the PLAY. Some people should just stay home in their trailers.]

~ Molly Matera signing off, hoping everyone gets to enjoy this exciting evening before the play closes a week from Sunday.

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