Somber audiences be warned: Don Stephenson's invigorating new production of Lend Me a Tenor aims to drive ticket-holders to tears--of laughter--and is currently hitting its mark at Paper Mill Playhouse. And, really, how could it not? If two hours of slamming doors, girls in closets, men in tights, prescription pills, and opera gags won't win your smile, nothing will.
Playwright Ken Ludwig's hit play, a nine-time Tony Award nominee during its Broadway debut in 1989 and three-time nominee for its revival in 2010, combines sexual puns, Italian accents, and gaudy characters to create a perfectly crafted farce. The show tells the story of Max (Broadway's The Wedding Singer veteran David Josefsberg), assistant to the General Manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera Company, and his dream of becoming a professional opera singer. When world-famous Italian tenor Tito Merelli (John Treacy Egan, most recently of Broadway's Sister Act) is scheduled to appear as the lead in Cleveland's Otello and is found dead, presumably, just hours before his performance, Max takes on the leading role of Merelli, as Otello. Hilariousness ensues in the form of all the misunderstandings you'd expect.
Michael Kostroff's (HBO's The Wire) extraordinary talent in taking on Saunders, the opera's manic general manager, anchors the entirety of this Tenor. If you look up "levels" in the dictionary, you'll likely see Kostroff's photo there—his broad physicality, so stoic on The Wire, fills the stage, and the actor milks every word of dialogue for laughs that would otherwise go unappreciated. Josefsberg does an admirable job of bringing depth not only to nerdy Max, but nerdy Max as Tito Merelli as well. Although the real Merelli's girth is exceptionally large, the slim Josefsberg so convincingly fills in the space between to two that it's not so big a stretch for audiences to believe the other characters buy him as the Italian tenor. That said, Josefsberg's overly bookish portrayal of Max occasionally ventures from loveable to borderline grating.
The true highlight of the evening comes when Egan's Merelli launches into a full-on duet with Max, giving audiences their first glimpse of the voice that has made Egan a Broadway favorite for years. His pitch-perfect transitions from confusion, to terror, to pain also land some of the night's biggest laughs, especially in his scenes with firey wife Maria, played by Judy Blazer. Everything is funny with accents and Broadway veteran Blazer is no exception, her vivid facial expressions and over-the-top Italian charm-cum-insanity leaving viewers somewhere between gasping for air and peeing their pants.
As a whole, the production finds its success in the skill of its onstage mimics, who make mistaken identity in this implausible opera setting seem not only plausible, but appealing. The aforementioned duet actually charges the air with passion and emotion—not something easily accomplished in a comedy full of drunken antics and sight gags involving wax fruit. John Lee Beatty's alluring set doesn't hurt either, creating the illusion of a flawless, grandiose hotel suite. The only obstacle comes, sadly, from the script's commitment to the single-set hotel suite, which limits innovation in the staging and design.
Lend Me a Tenor is, of course, a formulaic work. It is also a masterpiece, ingeniously alive on both the page and stage. Stephenson, and the cast and crew at Paper Mill, should take pride in having brilliantly revitalized and showcased its many virtues as the ideal vehicle for an ensemble of comedic actors who, with the right set up, know how to hit all the right notes.