Review: One Man, Two Guvnors

This is by far, bar none, the most hilarious show to open on Broadway this season! In One Man, Two Guvnors, brilliant Brit comic actor James Corden stars as Francis Henshall, a hungry and and easily-confused working class bloke in early 1960s Brighton, on the south coast of England. Francis agrees to work for a local gangster (who is not what he seems) and another smooth criminal on the lam…none of which Francis can keep straight.

I’ve often said that writing a rave review is much harder than writing a pan – the language of insult is so much more plentiful and colorful than the language of praise. And that’s true here: what else can I say but that it’s freaking hilarious, so funny it made my ribcage hurt from laughing? Cordon is an immensely talented stage comedian, with every bit of the abandon and shamelessness of, say, a Nathan Lane. He’s nearly beat in the physical comedy department by Tom Edden, as the elderly, shaky-handed waiter Alfie – I’ve seen very few performers who committed as totally to slapstick as Edden, and he’s a real joy to watch.

Playwright Richard Bean adapted the play from Carlo Goldoni’s Servant of Two Masters, an 18th Century farce, which Goldoni himself adapted from the stock characters of the unscripted commedia dell’arte. Setting the action in Brighton in the relatively innocent time of the early 1960s was a terrific choice on Bean’s part and it definitely gives the comedy some extra fun and zing.

To underline the period setting, director Nicholas Hynter has added a band in natty matching sharkskin suits who play skiffle in the first act, and Merseybeat rock in the second. This is the only thing in the show that doesn’t quite work – those peculiarly English forms of music, while appropriately energetic, don’t have quite the same nostalgic pull in New York that they must have had in London, and I found myself wanting to the band to finish long before they actually did. Hynter has smartly made the musical interludes in the show much shorter at the end than at the beginning, but they could be trimmed even more.

That’s a small complaint, though, for a show that is this much joyful fun. One Man, Two Guvnors is not to be missed!

For tickets, click here.

Review: In Masks Outrageous and Austere

I’ve been living in Tennessee Williams land for the last couple of years, directing two of his lesser known plays, The Strangest Kind of Romance and Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws, the latter in its New York premiere. In the process I’ve formed friendships with a variety of Williams scholars, and a frequent topic of conversation was In Masks Outrageous and Austere.

In Masks Outrageous and Austere was Williams’s last full-length play, unfinished at the time of his death in 1983. In it, an incredibly rich woman, her hustler of a husband and his young male lover are brought to a beautiful seaside where they are kept captive by the sinister Kudzu Chem Corporation. There have been various attempts over the years to reconcile different manuscripts, shepherded most recently by Joe E. Jeffreys, who is listed as dramaturg on this production, the play’s long anticipated world premiere.

I have become very familiar with Williams’s later work in preparation for directing the abovementioned productions, and have to say that while it is quite compelling, Masks still definitely feels unfinished. Now the Cats is as wild and wooly a play, but to me has a stronger and clearer sense of what Williams was attempting to convey. Williams wrote his first drafts in a very raw and instinctual way, and then would work assiduously to rewrite them to better reflect what he wanted to express. Masks is still very raw, not to mention long and somewhat meandering.

Director David Schweitzer is smart enough to exploit this very rawness, pushing the performances to frenzied intensity. There is nothing raw, however, about the design elements in this production. I felt intense “production budget envy” as I entered set designer James Noone’s dazzling LED-dominated environmental set, which reinforces the overall feeling of retro-80s futurism.

The cast give uniformly strong performances, conveying a great many shades of hope and dread, along with the occasional hint of homo-eroticism. As is always the case with Williams, this raw unfinished overlong mess is better than many a well-made play – it just isn’t as polished a jewel as other late Williams.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Peter and the Starcatcher

Its always a difficult proposition to transform a novel into a stage play – if you staged a novel page for page, it would probably run at least six hours if not much, much longer. So it may be a little unfair of me to suggest that Peter and the Starcatcher should be even shorter than its two acts and two hours. But, sorry to say it, that is exactly what keeps this fun and occasionally thoughtful roller-coaster ride of a show from being a true knock-out.

Both novel and play mine the idea of telling Peter Pan’s backstory, full of British Empire intrigue, orphans, magic and, yes, pirates. Playwright Rick Elice’s jokey adaptation slims the novel’s epic quality down to a manageable length, yes, but there still remain many moments where the audience is well ahead of the script. There’s also several moments that are muddied by different production elements fighting each other for attention. The production was co-directed by Roger Rees and Alex Timbers, and indeed this is one of the more over-directed shows I’ve seen in a while.

This is quibbling, however, since Peter and the Starcatcher is generally very engaging and entertaining. As often as they muddy the waters, Rees and Timbers even more often successfully find ways to assist Elice’s storytelling with simple yet appropriately magical theatrical means.

Plus, the cast is clearly having the time of their lives, especially Smash‘s Christian Borle as the way-fey pirate captain Black Stache – he once tells a monster to stop eating his scenery, which actually seems like an understatement. Adam Chanler-Berat is rapidly becoming the city’s go-to actor for evoking the joys and challenges of heroic adolescence. His portrayal of the proto-Pan “Boy” looks at this from directly the opposite angle of his take on Rent‘s “please-let-me-grow-up-right-now” Mark, and is every bit as effective.

I had a good time and more than a few laughs at Peter and the Starcatcher, and have no hesitation in recommending it as mildly thought-provoking – but mostly just really charming – entertainment.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

Review: Evita

This is a solid but far from electrifying production of what may be Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s strongest score. Evita tells the story of Eva Perón, the charismatic wife of authoritarian Argentinian president Juan Perón. Born poor in the slums of the provincial town of Junín, María Eva Duarte became a radio star, and married Perón when he was just a rising political star. We see her story through the eyes of a cynical leftist named Che.

Director Michael Grandage is a British master of realism – his productions of Red and Frost/Nixon were powerful for that very reason. His style also works very well for classical theatre, which has meant wonderful, realism-inflected versions of Hamlet and Mary Stuart. But Evita isn’t realism, and it isn’t classical. So what we have here is great talent largely misapplied.

I’m not saying that Grandage’s approach bears no fruit here: he brings out Eva’s humanity and vulnerability in new ways and, together with set designer Christopher Oram, makes dramatic use of Argentina’s beautiful architecture. It’s successful in its way, but nonetheless seems to somewhat miss the point.

Evita has a definite attitude about Eva, expressed not only through acerbic commentary Time Rice wrote for Che, but also through Webber’s Wagnerian use of musical themes to symbolize assorted ideas and parts of society. Grandage largely ignores these cues, giving us big production numbers (choreographed by a tango-happy Rob Ashford) that lack the necessary tension, danger and excitement.

One number in the second act “And the Money Kept Rolling In” really explodes, but does that in part because Grandage and Ashford have been inexplicably holding back until that point. Evita has multiple climaxes (ahem) and building to just one in the second act makes zero sense to me.

All that said, the leads are working hard in their assignments. Ricky Martin makes a very ingratiating Che, which does help tell the story with a certain clarity. The diminutive Elena Rogers is physically similar to historical Eva (more striking and glamorous than truly gorgeous), and puts her whole heart into acting the role, even if vocally she doesn’t quite have the belting power the part so desperately needs. Michael Cerveris successfully captures both Perón’s macho authority and his genuine tenderness toward Eva.

This is a good, but not great Evita. I liked it, but I really wish I had loved it.

For tickets, click here.