It takes two to Otello in Lend Me a Tenor, an anything-goes revival of Ken Ludwig's 1989 Broadway farce, in which Shakespeare/Verdi's Moor moves in double time through one hotel suite, two rooms, five doors and no exit from the nonsense. On April 4, it galloped gamely into the Music Box and just made itself comfy-cozy. Stanley Tucci, a much-nuanced and recently Oscar-nominated actor in his Broadway-directing bow, recruited a SWAT team of go-for-broke loons who bound about the stage with high-octane abandon, working the hinges right off those doors.
Through these portals of a Cleveland hotel suite, circa 1934, pass — at about 90mph, on occasion — Tito Merelli (Anthony LaPaglia), a philandering Italian tenor imported to do Otello for an Opera House gala; his literally hissing hellcat of a wife, Julia (Jan Maxwell); the impresario who did the importing, Saunders (Tony Shalhoub, in a perpetual Edgar Kennedy slow-burn); Saunders' goofy gofer-in-waiting, Max, who helpfully knows Otello note for note (Justin Bartha, in a star-making Broadway debut); Saunders' daughter and Max's sweetie, Maggie (Mary Catherine Garrison); a sexy soprano and career-driven Desdemona who is very much the huntress, Diana (Jennifer Laura Thompson); the dotty dowager who foots the bills, Julia (Brooke Adams); and, just to congest the traffic a little more, an opera-loving bellhop who totes the luggage (Jay Klaitz).
Tucci mixes the above to a frothy fare-thee-well and, for a final fillip, stages a steeple-chase curtain-call that recaps all the manic action that went before.
His over-the-top Italian roots are showing here, especially when Shalhoub gets to do the all-stops-out executing. Consider the volcanic flare-ups that follow when he is told that LaPaglia has had the nerve to die in the bedroom before the benefit. Shalhoub goes right for the jugular and tries to squeeze the body into a deeper state of death. Once-, twice-, three-times restrained, he's removed to the next room where even there only a good pant's leg-hold keeps him from crawling back for vengeance. "Yes, his direction is terribly Italian," Ludwig agreed later at Espace, the spacious new after-party site on West (very!) 42nd Street. "When he was casting, he said right from the beginning, 'Ken, I want to have people in this who really understand being Italian and what it is to be Italian.' He identifies so much with that heritage, and it was the right thing to do. I heard laughs tonight in the show that I had never known were there — simply because of the things that Stanley and the cast did."
The next thing that Ludwig will be hearing in the show is music. Lend Me a Tenor: The Musical, by Brad Carroll and Peter Sham, is set to bow in Britain, where the original play premiered in 1988 prior to Broadway. "That's going to be in the fall at Plymouth, and then hopefully the show move into the West End. We'll see. It's very flattering. To have a work and see it revived and then made into a musical. It makes me very proud, and I'm very touched that people think that something I wrote can be done again and translated into other mediums. It's very humbling."
Does it help to have been an actor in order to direct Lend Me a Tenor? Ian Talbot, who inherited the role of Max from Denis Lawson in the original English edition, is directing the musical remake — and, of course, Jerry Zaks, who helmed the 1989 Broadway version, started as an actor.
Ludwig thinks it definitely helps to have that particular history. "So many directors — many of the very best of them — start life as actors. They know what actors will do, they know their limits, they empathize. Stanley did a great job."
[flipbook] LaPaglia can say "Amen!" to that. It took him so long to find his farcical feet he considered bolting from the show, but Tucci held him in place. "You really have to trust the director on this one," he admitted. "Some of the choices he asked me to make, I just thought they would be too big, but in this play you can't be too big. I owe it all to Stanley. We did a film 20 years ago, and we've been friends ever since."
He also counts himself fortunate in the extreme to have Maxwell for his warring stage wife. "That's my crowning achievement. My daughter, who is seven, is Jan Maxwell's biggest fan, ever since she saw Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That's all she's doing tonight, following Jan around. I have lost my daughter to Jan Maxwell."
LaPaglia appeared visibly relieved that his baptism-by-farce was over. Although he has an Emmy for his recurring performance of Simon Moon on "Frasier," his specialty is drama, and that got him a Tony his last time on Broadway — in the 1988 A View From the Bridge (yes, he saw — and liked — the current production).
Another taking a giant step against type is Shalhoub, the thrice-Emmyed shamus Adrian Monk, whose obsessive-compulsive disorder background would be horrified by the cigar-puffing Saunders. "I never smoke cigars," admitted the actor, who indeed has trouble keeping it lit. "I don't care about keeping it lit. It's more of an affectation for this character anyway. I love that he's unapologetic. It's that 1930s political incorrectness. He screams at everybody, he raises his hand to his daughter.
"He's kind of a fish out of water, really. In this world of opera, he has no real appreciation for the art form. He is really a true businessman — in the wrong place."
It's a part you can work up a sweat with, he allowed. "Such a workout, and so much fun. It's a little challenging, a little death-defying, but such a brilliant cast. Stanley did a wonderful job. We all want to be our best for him. He has that effect on people.
Lend Me a Tenor was an easy choice for Shalhoub to make. Not only was Tucci, an old friend and frequent film co-star, at the helm, "I wanted to do something huge in contrast to 'Monk,' something I could feel unleashed about, and this was the role. Plus, it was a wonderful opportunity to work with my wife again."
Mrs. Shalhoub is Brooke Adams, who contents herself this time playing the clueless opera funder, a conspicuous step down from her only other Broadway assignment — replacing Joan Allen in the title role of The Heidi Chronicles.
That play, she beamed, "is where I met Tony Shalhoub, and that was 20 years ago. We've not been actively looking for things to do together, but I manifested this. I had sorta quit acting a while to raise my girls — you know, I'd do a 'Monk' or something every once in a while — but I had quit, and I kept saying, 'Y'know, I think I can later ride in on Tony's coattails and do a Broadway show.' And here I am."
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Adams was wearing a snappy little number whipped up for her for opening night by the show's twice-Tonyed costume designer, Martin Pakledinaz. In the show, he brings her on in a gorgeous, shimming gown of silver slivers, looking (as someone properly notes) "like the Chrysler Building." "Yeah," she nodded to the obvious question, "it weighs a ton, and it trips you up, but it's such a beautiful dress."
Pakledinaz, who has a field day with those vintage frocks, said there were two things he was happiest with in this show: "One is listening to Stanley Tucci. He's so smart. He's such a great leader, and he has wonderful ideas that don't leave you hanging. The other thing, actually, is getting Jan Maxwell to smile." Of her work, he gushed, "I think it's one of those roles, isn't it? Y'know, you just take it [and] you say, 'Well, if I only have five minutes, I might as well take half of the scenery with me when I leave.' I think she's great."
Fresh from her comic tour de force in The Royal Family, Maxwell comes on as Comedy Concentrate, hitting her hilarious high-marks at the start and finish.
"I think I have four minutes of speech in a two and a hour hour venture," she said. "I have an hour and a half off. Only show I know where I can take a nap at the theatre."
Tovah Feldshuh, a Tony-contender for that role in the original production, was a one-woman cheering section for Maxwell and the revival. "I thought it was brilliant. I loved every minute of it. What floored me the most was that this was Stanley Tucci's directing debut on Broadway. I thought the cast was magnificent. "It was wonderful to cheer Ken Ludwig on and these wonderful actors. Some of the stuff we did, they didn't do. Some of the stuff they did, we didn't do. That's the way it is with human beings. It's the first time I've ever been at the revival of a play where I have originated the role. It's the pleasure Celeste Holm got when she saw Oklahoma! the second or third time. I never had that pleasure ever before."
Victor Garber, the Tony-nominated Max of that 1989 version, has had that experience, thank you very much. He can cite chapter and verse: "Sweeney Todd, Noises Off, Little Me, The Shadow Box and, any day now, Deathtrap." He circled Bartha — this millennium's Max — teasing, "Finally, it was illuminated. Maybe I should do a reading of it again, just to rediscover it."
Bartha is the last to take a bow in the show — and rightly so — and this practically qualifies as his first time on any stage. "I actually only did scene work in college," he confessed a little sheepishly. "I haven't been in a play, really, since high school."
He didn't exactly come out from under a rock onto the Broadway stage. He was in the sidekick slot in the "National Treasure" films and played the M.I.A. groom in "The Hangover," but the star-is-born myth hangs happily on him. "I was ready, I think. I'd wanted to do this for the last few years. I'd been looking for a play, but I never really had the time. I would always sign on for something else until I finally decided I really needed to go do a play. I met with Stanley a bunch of times and tried to get it. We'd never met before. I just heard about all the good people who were signing up for it."
On the marquee, he's third above the title — but, in the long run, he finishes first. "It's draining. There's a lot of running around, but, when you're working with seven of the great actors of the theatre and Stanley is your director, it comes together easily."
First-nighters included Alfred Molina, Carol Kane, Frances Sternhagen, Patricia Clarkson, Lili Taylor, John Turturro with Max Casella, Leslie Jordan, Laura Benanti and Stephen Pasquale with Starbucks cups, Jamie de Roy, Polly Draper and clan, Janet McTeer, the Olsen twins in matching sunglasses (Ashley is going with Bartha), Becky Ann and Dylan Baker, Viola Davis, John Lithgow, Julianne Moore, Andrea Martin, conductor Patrick Vaccariello, Douglas Carter Beane, John Tenney, Lorraine Bracco, Jesse Eisenberg, Aidan Quinn, Steven Buscemi, Sam Rockwell, Byron Jennings and Caroline McCormick, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Brent Barrett.