New Jersey loves its sopranos, but for the next few weeks, tenors are the dominant class in the northern area codes. And theater fans from Cape May to Cliffside Park will want to share the mayhem and merriment at Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
No doubt the majority of regular theatergoers have seen at least one production of “Lend Me a Tenor,” a door-slamming farce that has been a staple of professional and community theaters since its debut in 1986 on London’s West End. It debuted on Broadway in 1989, where it earned nine Tony nominations (winning two), and was revived there in 2010.
Playwright Ken Ludwig, who has seen his comic hit translated into 16 languages, attended Sunday’s press opening at Paper Mill and shared a standing ovation with a splendid cast on New Jersey’s biggest theatrical stage.
Fortunately, “Lend Me a Tenor” is one of those gems that stands up to repeated viewing — as long as it’s done well, which is no easy feat. The good news is that not only is it done well here, but the cast makes it looks easy — and believe me, it’s not — making it that much more fun to watch.
The bad news? Well, there really isn’t any, except possibly that you’ll want good seats in this huge theater, and once the word gets out, the best seats will go fast. The annual winter nonmusicals at Paper Mill generally suffer at least a bit because it’s hard for smaller casts to play to the distant back rows, but even on this point, this production is ahead of the curve.
Give at least some of the credit to Don Stephenson, who is making his directorial debut at Paper Mill after a standout performance as John Adams in a recent production here of “1776.” Appropriately, his “Lend Me a Tenor” made its debut on President’s Day weekend.
But let’s reserve the loudest applause for the cast, which is full of experienced comic ringers, led by one Broadway veteran who lives in nearby South Orange and is enjoying the rarest of treats for regional actors — a short commute. David Josefsberg sets the pace as Max, the assistant to the manager of the Cleveland Grand Opera House (circa 1934). Max dreams of being an opera star himself, but he’s the reserved and nervous type, which keeps him behind the scenes despite a booming tenor voice of his own.
His personality also has him a step behind in his ambition to wed the lovely Maggie (Jill Paice), who fancies Max but dreams of having a fling with a worldly opera star before settling down. She has eyes and ears for Tito Morelli (John Treacy Egan, who played three different roles during the Broadway run of “The Producers”), the famous Italian tenor booked for a grand performance of “Otello.”
Max is tasked by his boss, Mr. Saunders (Michael Kostroff, who did five seasons on HBO’s “The Wire”), to keep the mercurial Tito sober and celibate, at least until the curtain call. Naturally, this does not happen, forcing Saunders to have Max impersonate Tito both onstage and off to avoid financial ruin.
The ruse goes well, too well, in fact, leading to a series of mistaken identities, rimshot humor and more slamming doors than you’ll hear in a season full of reality television.
There’s lots of eye-rolling, naughty innuendo and delightful overacting to enjoy. And unlike some of the comedies and dramas brought to this stage, there’s plenty of slapstick that is broad and bold enough to reach the cheapest seats in the balcony.
Rounding out the cast are Mark Price as the opera-loving bellhop, Nancy Johnston as the pretentious Maria, Paper Mill veteran Donna English as a hot-blooded diva and Judy Blazer as Tito’s shrewish wife, Maria, who stalks the stage with an attitude and an Italian accent that would make Paulie Walnuts run in terror.
The best part is that “Lend Me a Tenor” starts out funny and keeps getting funnier — even if you’ve seen it all before.
“Lend Me a Tenor” continues through March 10 at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. Tickets are $26 to $97. For information, call 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.