Clowning Around

There is no greater joy to be had on Broadway right now — perhaps on the entire planet, come to think of it — than watching James Corden in the lead of the hilarious British import “One Man, Two Guvnors.” Adapting liberally from the 18th century play “The Servant of Two Masters,” which itself was a takeoff on classic commedia dell’arte, playwright Richard Bean has created a rollicking story of one Francis Henshall, who in trying to make his way in the world accepts positions to serve both the upper class Stanley Stubbers and the villain Roscoe Crabbe, whom we discover almost instantaneously is really his twin sister Rachel in disguise.

Roscoe may have been killed by Stanley and has fled, with Rachel, who’s in love with Stanley, in pursuit. These are the “two guvnors” Henshall tries to serve, and this is just one of the interconnected plots too numerous to explain.

And why spoil the fun?

All of this plotting is just a structure on which to hang physical comedy, over-the-top gags, and the relentless pursuit, by Francis, of something to eat.

As Francis, Corden commands the stage with an amazing ease and is so in the moment that when the unexpected happens, he simply rolls with it — and leaves the audience rolling in the aisles. Corden is the embodiment of comic inspiration that leads to genius and plays so wonderfully with the rest of the cast that one wishes the show would never end — just pause long enough so your sides can stop aching from the laughing.

The entire company is spectacular, directed with perfection by Nicholas Hytner. Their timing is impeccable, and each of the silly characters is beautifully rendered. Oliver Chris is hilarious as the twit Stanley. Jemima Rooper is excellent as Roscoe/ Rachel, and Tom Edden plays an octogenarian waiter who on his first day at the pub has to serve two madcap dinners up and down a flight of stairs. His physical clowning — and his work with Corden — leaves you breathless from laughter.

The play has been set in 1961, and there is also a band, the Craze, that plays pastiche period music by Grant Olding that’s just sensational.

There are, I’m told, some people who don’t like this kind of humor, and if you’re one of them, then this may not be for you. But for everyone else, it’s a high point of the theater season and the most refreshing comic treat Broadway has had in a a long time.

ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS | Music Box Theater | 239 W. 45th St. | Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $26.50-$126.50 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

 

The only pleasure one can possibly derive from watching Matthew Broderick’s performance in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is to sit there and wonder who the producers might have hired who could actually do the role. There couldn’t be a more wrong-headed choice than Broderick to play the singing, dancing playboy millionaire Jimmy Winter, who the script says is “dripping with charm.” Broderick’s performance is about as charm-free as it could be.

Most of his performance consists of rehashing his whiny line-readings from “The Producers.” His singing is reedy, and he delivers the songs as if by rote, with no understanding of what he’s saying. His dancing is tentative and lumbering. He’s so inept that he very nearly sinks the whole shebang while taking some of the most beloved Gershwin songs in the American Songbook and brutally trampling them under his unsure foot.

Gershwin mash-ups are nothing new to Broadway. Both “My One and Only” and “Crazy For You” created new books to showcase the songs. But both of those had actors who knew how to sell a number. Watching Broderick, one sighs for the lack of Harry Groener and Tommy Tune — not to mention Judy Benson and Twiggy — who made Gershwin glow on all levels.

“Nice Work” has a book by Joe DiPietro, who has borrowed from Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse to create the flimsy story replete with bootleggers, prohibitionists who discover the sauce, chorines, and mismatched lovers. The book has its charming moments, but mostly exists to tie songs together and give performers their star turns.

And there are some star turns to be had, despite Broderick’s best efforts at sucking everything on stage into his own personal void. Kelli O’Hara as Billie, the bootlegger dressed as a man who falls for Jimmy, is outstanding, especially given the circumstances. The reward for returning from intermission is to hear her sing “But Not For Me.” In fact, every time O’Hara is on either alone or with anyone other than Broderick, she has the inimitable pluck and sparkle required for a trouser role.

In supporting roles, Judy Kaye as the battle-axe reformer who changes her tune when she gets a taste of demon rum is hilarious. Michael McGrath as Billie’s sidekick forced into the role of butler at Jimmy’s Long Island estate, where the bootleggers had hoped to hide out, has all the low comedy meant as counterpoint to Jimmy’s sophistication. Unfortunately, McGrath is left to do all the lifting himself, and he does it marvelously.

Kathleen Marshall seems to have directed around Broderick. She’s got a great ensemble, and the lavish show is nice to look at thanks to Derek McClane’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes. For all their efforts, though, it’s unfortunate that saddled with a miscast leading man, they weren’t able to get passable — let alone nice — work out of this rich material.

NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT | Imperial Theatre | 249 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m. | Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $46.50-$136.50 | telecharge.com or 212-239-6200

More from Around NYC