Justin Bartha and Tony Shalhoub in Lend Me a Tenor
(© Joan Marcus)
Justin Bartha and Tony Shalhoub in Lend Me a Tenor
(© Joan Marcus)
Tony Shalhoub may have wanted a change of pace from television's Monk, Anthony LaPaglia may have wanted a change of pace from Without a Trace, and Justin Bartha may have wanted a change of pace from high-grossing movies like The Hangover. Well, they've got exactly what they wanted in Stanley Tucci's shrewdly directed revival of Ken Ludwig's ingeniously contrived and often hilarious farce, Lend Me a Tenor, now being revived at the Music Box Theatre.

Indeed, these three actors are playing the comedy so far over the top that they've just passed the cow on her way to the moon. Keeping up with them in speeding through the six hotel-room doors and one shadowy hallway that set designer John Lee Beatty has provided with his usual architectural flair are the expert Jan Maxwell, Mary Catherine Garrison, Jay Klaitz, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Brooke Adams.

The work is set in 1934 Cleveland, where the monied community leaders are about to have a night of grand opera featuring world-renowned tenor Tito Merelli (LaPaglia). However, the play's snarled complications begin when Merelli is late for rehearsal, disorienting local producer Saunders (Shalhoub) and his timid gofer Max (Bartha), an aspiring tenor and frustrated suitor for Saunders' daughter Maggie (Garrison).

When Merelli finally shows up, he's battling with his termagant wife Maria (Maxwell) and unprepared to do much of anything -- especially rehearse. After that, things take too many turns to be itemized, but it's enough to say Merelli doesn't make the performance, while Max does.

By the second act, there are two men fulminating in one hotel suite in Othello's pantaloons and blackface -- both alternately being wooed by Maggie, the grande-dame like Julia (Adams), sultry siren Diana (Thompson), and the hotel's opera-loving, champagne-bearing bellhop (Klaitz). And it all goes on with brio until the repeatedly mistaken identities are eventually unmistaken and the curtain drops on a happy ending (and one of the cleverest curtain calls ever devised for Broadway).

The standard aim of farces meant to poke fun at human foolishness is arranging the action so that any number of people can eventually be seen hastening in and out of doors in well-drilled synchronicity. That requires careful planning, and Ludwig has done his homework. Still, his first act remains milder than his second, where the belly-laughs abound. Nevertheless, he gets in some good yuks throughout, and they're not just one-liners. He extracts his humor from character, so that seemingly benign comments like "Put down that spoon" and "I'm not so sure" get the largest guffaws.

While best known as an actor, Tucci proves to be a sly director, full of clever ideas (one of which includes bubbles blown onto the stage for a reason that won't be explained here). And Tucci's not the only one with catchy notions. Costume designer Martin Pakledinaz's idea of 1930s couture includes lined capes that are opened with a flourish and furs to be flung on divans.

The major joy of this production, however, is watching this polished cast show what kind of all-out farceurs they can be -- especially the top-billed stars. Figurative steam comes from Shalhoub's ears as his producer's dismay mounts, while LaPaglia's nonplussed expressions in Othello drag and Bartha's Max letting go with operatic song at Merelli's behest are moments of great fun. Audiences will be rolling in the aisles, or at least rollicking in their seats.