By Colin Douglas
Perched on the edge of Brighton Pier, down along the southern coast of England, a dozen bizarre characters unite for a wedding. Played against the music and mayhem of the Swinging 60’s, a group of comic, singing/dancing instrumentalists play out a frenetic story of romance, deception, crime and mistaken identities that begins at a breakneck pace and escalates to the speed of light.
This 2011 farce is the work of prolific British playwright, Richard Bean which was, in turn, based upon the 1743 Commedia dell’arte style comedy, A Servant of Two Masters, by Italian dramatist Carlo Galdoni. Although technically not a musical, but rather an English Music Hall style entertainment with tunes, the play features a score of silly songs composed by Grant Olding. In its entirety, One Man, Two Guvnors is a total barrel of belly laughs that wrings down the curtain on Court Theatre’s 61st season of excellence.
In 1963 Brighton, “one man,” an enterprising, yet down-on-his-luck young fellow named Francis Henshall, suddenly finds himself employed by two different “guvnors.” One employer is a gangster named Roscoe Crabbe; the other is an upper class criminal named Stanley Stubbers. Besides carrying out each of his employer’s demands, Henshall must keep the two men apart so they won’t discover that he’s working for both thugs. It’s soon revealed, however, that Roscoe Crabbe has actually been killed by Stanley Stubbers and the Roscoe we’re seeing is, in reality, his twin sister Rachel, in disguise. It’s also divulged that Rachel is in love with Stanley.
Another shady character named Charlie “The Duck” Clench has arranged for his pretty young daughter, Pauline, to marry Roscoe, but she’s secretly planning to elope with a would-be actor named Alan Dangle. Joining this motley crew are Alan’s barrister father Harry, an infamous mutual friend of both Charlie and Rachel named Lloyd Boateng and Charlie’s beautiful bookkeeper, Dolly.
At the helm of this challenging production is Director Charles Newell. He’s brought in some welcome assistance by Movement Consultant Christopher Bayes, to aid in the fine art of physical comedy and clowning, and Musical Director Doug Peck, to guide and finesse the tuneful interludes. Eve Breneman also lends her talent to the cast as dialect coach. The postcard perfect Brighton Pier, complete with beach cabanas and a sandy beach, has been designed by Collette Pollard, and the production also features Mara Blumenfeld’s extraordinary, gaudy 60’s costume creations.
There couldn’t be a finer, more talented cast assembled for this production. In a welcome return to the Court Theatre, Timothy Edward Kane demonstrates so much physical and verbal dexterity as the title character, Francis Henshall. Clad in his madras patchwork suit, Kane is a modern-day Harlequin, bounding all over the stage and up and down the aisles, and evoking laughter at every turn. He’s matched by the lovely, spunky Elizabeth Ledo as Rachel Crabbe, in drag as her twin brother Roscoe. There’s a particularly funny bit when Ledo is actually costumed as both characters for a jaunty little musical number that almost stops the show. Erik Hellman is funny and captivating as Stanley Stubbers, all classy and gentlemanly driven while working toward securing his own happy ending.
Chaon Cross demonstrates a perky flair for physical comedy as Pauline Clench, looking remarkably like Lesley Gore as she rocks, bops and tries to avoid being clunked on the head by her dorky lover, Alan Dangle, played to his buffoonery best by Alex Goodrich. Chicago favorite Hollis Resnik is a strong-willed femme fatale as Dolly; Ross Lehman is a comic dream playing both Alan’s lawyer father Harry Dangle and an aging waiter; and Francis Guinan, clad in a bright red plaid suit, struts his silly, slapstick stuff as Charlie “The Duck” Clench. The ensemble, comprised of Allen Gilmore (as funnyman Lloyd Boateng), Elisa Carlson and Derek Hasenstab, also do triple duty as instrumentalists, singers and comedians.
There couldn’t be a more entertaining play to end this brilliant season at the Court Theatre. Nor can there be funnier, more lighthearted production to welcome the Summer season in Chicago. This laugh-a-minute production will have audiences gasping for breath, between all the giggling and guffaws. It’s even inconceivable how this cast finds enough oxygen to carry on, as they continuously do, while mining every ounce of comedy from Richard Bean’s well-written script. Once the play begins, thanks to Newell’s direction, the energy never lets up until well after the final curtain. Several audience members will even become involved in the action each night, so buyer beware. Enjoy the free popcorn and merriment while dipping your toes in this comedy pool. One Man, Two Guvnors is one farce theatergoers will be talking about for years to come.
Court Theatre presents “One Man, Two Guvnors” through June 12 at 5535 S. Ellis Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are available by calling (773) 753-4472 or online here. Other reviews by Colin may be read at theatreinchicago.com.