NEW YORK — This season, the king of fools on Broadway may well be James Corden. The slapstick farce and British vaudevillian merriment galloping throughout the exuberant music-hall comedy, "One Man, Two Guvnors," are a perfect fit for Corden's range of expressive comedic abilities.
The Music Box Theatre rang with repeated shouts of laughter at one preview, so apparently American theater-goers also love the earthy, silly British humor that pervades this hilarious London import, which opened Wednesday night at Broadway's Music Box theater.
Playwright Richard Bean based his plot on Carlo Goldoni's 18th-century Commedia dell'Arte farce, "The Servant of Two Masters," updating the action to the British seaside town of Brighton in the early 1960s. Bean and director Sir Nicholas Hytner have made further tweaks to accommodate the unfamiliarity of most Americans with some British expressions. It's been said our two countries are divided by a common language, but the joyous laughter emanating from this production could reunite them at last.
Staged by Hytner with close attention to farcical nuance, the extremely accomplished original British cast animatedly sends up the politically incorrect, often-bawdy jokes and stereotypes of that bygone era, aided by frequent audience participation and interludes of peppy skiffle music.
Tuneful songs by Grant Olding are performed by tight-suited, onstage boy-band, The Craze, (actually four American musicians) and set the right tone of lightness to support the improbable proceedings. Together with Mark Thompson's cartoon-like set and snappy period costumes, the bright look and sound are perfect for the onslaught of puns, risque double-entendres and merry pratfalls that whiz by.
Corden is the chief clown, Goldoni's Harlequin, happily enacting hungry, hapless Francis Henshall. Francis is a down-at-his-heels, would-be manservant who overtaxes his limited mental capacity by simultaneously working for two demanding bosses (the guvnors), both criminals on the lam. Typical of his loose grasp on reality is his tendency, when confused, to eat important mail instead of delivering it.
Some Americans who watch public television will know Corden for his comedic brilliance on the British TV show "Gavin & Stacey," which he also created and co-wrote. Much slimmer now, Corden spends the duration of "One Man" racing frenziedly around the stage, gleefully jesting with the audience and getting some to participate in the antics.
His open, friendly face flickers wildly with emotion, quickly endearing him to the crowd, which roars with approval at the silly jokes and actions, and at his evident delight in performing them. Corden seems to be a combination of both Laurel and Hardy, especially when he has a wild fight with himself, as Francis argues with his imaginary Irish twin, Paddy. Since both of them fight dirty, it's only thanks to physical comedy director Cal McCrystal that nobody gets hurt during this or any of the other frequent slapstick moments. Most of the time, anyhow.
The talent-rich cast includes a memorable turn by Oliver Chris, smug perfection as mindlessly hearty criminal Stanley Stubbers. With aplomb, Chris tosses off ribald boarding-school jokes and nonsensical metaphors, exclaiming enthusiastically at one point, "Wrap his balls in bacon and send him to the nurse!"
Jemima Rooper is adorably fierce as Rachel Crabbe, who's in cross-dressing disguise as gangster Roscoe, her dead twin brother. Rachel and Stanley are deeply in love and hoping to be reunited, even though Stanley just murdered Roscoe. They unknowingly share the services of Francis, who wrongly thinks he must keep his two bosses apart.
Daniel Rigby is a delight as intensely self-important Alan Dangle, a leather-clad would-be actor. Leaping on and off the stage while striking absurd theatrical poses, Dangle defends his beloved fiancee, the very dim Pauline Clench (Claire Lams), by declaring with florid sincerity things like, "She is pure, innocent, unsoiled by education, like a new bucket!"
Tom Edden is a real scene-stealer as trembling, elderly waiter, Alfie. Edden provides endless fodder for cheap laughs as he skillfully staggers around the stage during the justly famous, extremely funny dinner service scene, taking violent hits from doors or flying backwards down the stairs. Suzie Toase is warm and winking as Francis' love interest, busty bookkeeper Dolly. The rest of the distinguished cast includes Martyn Ellis, Fred Ridgeway as Charlie "the Duck" Clench, Trevor Laird, and Ben Livingston.
The action slows down slightly in the second act, but the entire production is so memorably hilarious that it could be deemed a two-hanky weepie — for tears of laughter.