Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: 'One Man, Two Guvnors' Hired at the Music Theatre on Broadway

(photo: TheHopefulTraveler)
James Corden (Francis Henshall)
(production photos: Joan Marcus)
Oliver Chris (right), with James Corden,
 plays Stanley Stubbers, one of the two
The comic bliss of ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ on stage at the Music Box Theatre will leave theatergoers lifted to uproarious heights. Most of the fun is owed to actor James Corden in the title role.

The show opens with and is peppered throughout during scene changes with Skiffle songs written by Grant Olding and performed by Jason Rabinowitz, lead vocals; Charlie Rosen, bass; Jacob Colin Cohen, drums/percussion; and Austin Moorhead, lead guitar. The songs capture the spirit of play’s time period and location and is a sly set-up for the audience to let down their guard for the forthcoming hijinks. Coiffed and groomed as clean cut musicians they make up the faux group the Craze and they perform like they’ve been pros at the genre of music. The infectious songs are actually better than some in recent original Broadway musicals. Not to lose a moment for fun, the actors get into the act during some musical numbers by singing or playing instruments (or for one actor playing himself).

But it’s the arrival of Corden that will mainly keep the audience laughing out loud. It’s hard to imagine the poor understudy who has to live up to Corden’s performance when he cannot play a performance. Corden displays the gift of comic timing, deft improvisation, wise interaction with the audience and energetic physical comedy. Few actors can command the stage alone but Corden does so with lovable aplomb as when Francis argues with himself including a fighting body roll across the stage and ending with a slap to his own face.

‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ tells of the permanently ravenous Francis Henshall (Corden) who finds himself working for both a gangster and criminal in hiding, both of whom are linked in a web of schemes, extortions and romantic associations. To prevent discovery, Francis must do everything he can keep his two guvnors apart.
(story continued below)

The Craze (left to right): Charlie Rosen, Jacob Colin Cohen, Austin
Moorhead and Jason Rabinowitz.
Suzie Toase (Dolly), Oliver Chris, James Corden and Jamima Rooper
(Rachel Crabbe), whose alter ego is the one of the two guvnors.
Play is authored by Richard Bean who adapted the story from the 1743 comedy “Servant of Two Masters” by Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni. With director Nicholas Hytner the two have crafted a play re-set to Brighton, England 1963 where, to borrow the words of the director himself from a recent interview: there is no substance and has nothing to say about the human condition; it is completely unsophisticated; it’s old-fashioned low comedy. The point of it all is to have merry good-old time.

James Corden.
After 18 years of Broadway theatergoing, my history of truly amusing comedic plays and individual performances are limited but I have seen some that are among the best evenings I have ever spent at the theatre: ‘Moon Over Buffalo’ (1996) with Carol Burnett; ‘Boeing-Boeing’ (2008) with Mark Rylance; and the 2001 revival of ‘Noises Off’ featuring an ensemble of theatre pros. I’m happy to include among this elite group ‘One Man’.

Corden is such a tremendous comic talent on stage that if not careful the audience could be worn out by the end of the first act. But Corden, Bean and Hytner paces the audience so there is a true arc to the feel of story even it lacks any depth. The audience is left on a high with a classic act one closer where Francis is forced to serve dinner to his two masters at the same time while keeping them apart. Food flying and doors slamming combined with the an old waiter with the shakes and a purported member of the audience create a sense of suspense of how far will the crazy antics be taken.

The wonderful supporting cast also imported from England ably keeps the action moving even when Corden is absent from a scene. Faring best among them are Tom Edden who nearly steals the spotlight from Corden as Alfie, the shaky waiter; and Suzie Toase playing a lusty voiced love interest for Francis. As his two guvnors, Oliver Chris fares better than Jemima Rooper who has the more difficult task of playing the gender bending one of the two. Claire Lams as the dim fiancee to one of the the guvnors, Daniel Rigby as an overly dramatic acting actor and Trevor Laird as an Anglo-African pub owner shine in their brief scenes.
(story continued below)

Oliver Chris (left) and Tom Edden as Alfie the waiter.
Suzie Toase and James Corden
The proceedings do slow down for just a bit late in the second act if not by sheer exhaustion from the laughter or to give Corden a breather by giving him some offstage time but things quickly perk-up to wrap up the story where all deceptions are revealed.

There has been some debate about how improvised the scenes are with the audience. Obviously a certain amount is planned but Corden is ready for anything the audience is ready to serve up including from those who have previous knowledge of these scenes.

Technical elements help bring Brighton in the 1960s to life from the sets and costumes by Mark Thompson to the aforementioned music of Olding. But it’s the ensemble that captures the innocence of the play and the time.

One of the many reasons I love live theater is when it’s so great it enables the audience to completely lose and immerse themselves in the world being lived on stage. ‘One Man, Two Guvnors’ goes one better to make the world seem simple and endlessly funny and if only for a couple hours allows us to forget all our worries other than if poor Francis will find something to eat.


(left to right): Trevor Laird as the pub owner Lloyd Boateng, Oliver
Chris and Jemima Rooper.
(l to r): James Corden, Suzie Toase, Claire Lams, Oliver Chris, Jemima Rooper,
Daniel Rigby, Trevor Laird, Martyn Ellis and Red Ridgeway. 
James Corden
Oliver Chris, Tom Edden and James Corden.


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