Lend Me a Tenor

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus
Despite a serious case of miscasting, Stanley Tucci's riotous staging of Ken Ludwig's "Lend Me a Tenor" provides an evening full of belly laughs, slapstick action, and projectiles aimed into the orchestra seats. If you want to laugh yourself silly and you're willing to duck fruit, champagne corks, and flung roses, this is the show for you. But you're going to have to suspend a huge chunk of your disbelief, and I suspect the main audience for this 1989 farce will be more than willing to do so.

The casting error—and it's a big one—is the placement of Justin Bartha in the central role of Max, a nebbishy opera company gofer with singing aspirations. Bartha, whose main claim to fame is a supporting role in the film hit "The Hangover," has a pleasant-enough comic manner and scores when putting over Woody Allenish nerd shtick. But for the plot to work properly, we have to believe that the milksop Max can convincingly disguise himself as the charismatic world-famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli (a robust Anthony LaPaglia), who lies unconscious due to an accidental overdose of sleeping pills. Even disregarding the mismatch in body types between the slender Bartha and the bulky LaPaglia, Bartha lacks the pipes and the presence to put the illusion across.

Putting that caveat aside—and for some it will hardly matter—this is a comic merry-go-round well worth jumping on. The mistaken-identities storyline is as old as Plautus, but it floats away like the soap bubbles used to hilarious effect in one of the many door-slamming sequences. What remains is a fast-paced romp of physical comedy and double entendres. Like excited kids playing with brightly colored balloons, Tucci and his company manage to keep this lighter-than-air show from hitting the ground. The most rambunctious and explosive of these amusing children in grownup clothes is Tony Shalhoub, who plays Saunders, the hot-tempered opera company manager. In a total departure from his mild-mannered "Monk" persona, Shalhoub is all volcanic ego searching for a victim on whom to release his lavalike rage. Watch as he repeatedly pummels the comatose LaPaglia and then takes out his frustration on a spinning ottoman like a demented cat.

Jan Maxwell is another outstanding farceur as Maria, Merelli's hugely jealous wife. Maxwell stops the show with a magnificently theatrical hissy fit, as she did earlier this season in "The Royal Family." Mary Catherine Garrison makes the perfect ingénue as Saunders' not-so-innocent daughter Maggie. Jennifer Laura Thompson is equally impeccable as the voracious femme fatale Diana. Jay Klaitz garners guffaws as an overeager bellhop. Like Bartha, Brooke Adams is miscast as the pesky board chairman Julia. The character is meant to be an annoying nudge in a garishly inappropriate gown with delusions of her own allure. But the attractive Adams is anything but frumpy, so none of her bits makes sense. Fortunately, the role is so minor it scarcely damages the proceedings.

The physical production is top-notch, with John Lee Beatty's elegant hotel-room set and Martin Pakledinaz's stylish costumes re-creating the 1930s time period with flair.

Presented by the Araca Group, Stuart Thompson, Carl Moellenberg, Rodney Rigby, Olympus Theatricals, Broadway Across America, and the Shubert Organization, in association with Wendy Federman/Jamie deRoy/Richard Winkler, Lisa Cartwright, Spring Sirkin, and Scott and Brian Zeilinger, at the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th St., NYC. April 4–Aug. 15. Tue., 7 p.m.; Wed.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. (212) 239-6200, (800) 432-7250, or www.telecharge.com. Casting by MelCap/David Caparelliotis.