Carlo Goldoni's 1746 commedia dell'arte-inspired play "The Servant of Two Masters" gets a swinging '60s, oh-so-British makeover in "One Man, Two Guvnors," an adaptation by Richard Bean (with songs by Grant Olding). The madcap farce was a big hit in the United Kingdom in 2011, Broadway in 2012 (earning comedian James Corden a Tony Award) and now seems poised to be an audience favorite at the Lucie Stern Theater, if the roaring laughter greeting Palo Alto Players' opening night is any indication.
Set in the seaside town of Brighton in 1963, Doug Santana plays leading buffoon Francis Henshall, a former member of a skiffle band (he also claims responsibility for The Beatles) who was tossed out of the group and is desperate to earn some bread so he can get, well, bread. He's taken a job as a lackey for London gangster Roscoe Crabbe who, unbeknownst to him, is actually Roscoe's twin sister, Rachel, in disguise (Katie Champlin). Rachel is on the lam down the coast after her brother's murder, at the hands of her betrothed, the posh Stanley Stubbers (Brad Satterwhite, also on the lam, also hiding in Brighton). Rachel-as-Roscoe hits up Charlie "The Duck" Clench (Ray D'Ambrosio), a fellow crime lord, for getaway money. An added complication is that Roscoe, who was gay, had an arragement with Charlie to marry his dim-witted daughter Pauline (Michelle Skinner) but in the meantime, she's fallen madly in love with pretentious wannabe actor Alan Dangle (Drew Benjamin Jones), the son of Charlie's sesquipedalian lawyer Harry Dangle (played by Troy Johnson and from the law firm Dangle, Berry and Bush; it's that kind of show). Also in the mix is Charlie's pal-from-Brixton Prison Lloyd Boateng (Fred Pitts), who's like a second father to Rachel and now owns the local pub, which is where much of the show's slapstick action takes place. We also meet Charlie's bookeeper and Francis' proudly feminist love interest Dolly (Pear Theatre Artistic Director Betsy Kruse Craig), Alfie (Chris Mahle), a demented, elderly Great War veteran with a wonky pacemaker and a new job as a waiter at the pub, and Bryan Moriarty in a variety of small-but-humorous roles.
While clownish Francis is meant to be dedicated to working only for Rachel/Roscoe, she hasn't yet paid him, so when he happens to meet in-need-of-a-dogsbody Stanley -- not realizing his connection to his other employer -- he decides to secretly try serving both of the titular two "guvnors." Mayhem and, for the most part, hilarity, ensue.
If you, like me, cringe and cower at the prospect of any kind of "audience participation," this show may make you rather uncomfortable. If you revel in fourth-wall breaking and improvised comedy, however, you'll love Santana's impressive, exuberant, interactive performance, which also entails tossing off references designed to appeal to local audiences. He does his best to live up to a role seemingly tailor-made for Corden and largely succeeds, although his British accent does disappear periodically. Everyone in the cast is high-energy and up for anything, including engaging in demanding physical comedy. Director Patrick Klein and physical-comedy director Carla Pantoja keep the ridiculous antics moving along nicely, even if the key scene in which Francis attempts to serve two dinners at once does go on a bit long. I enjoyed everyone's performances but for me the MVP award goes to Satterwhite, who is absolutely pitch-perfect as cheerfully sadistic, uppercrust-boarding-school-damaged toff Stanley. Simply splendid.
The most charming, and special, aspect of "One Man, Two Guvnnors," though, is the fact that it boasts original songs sprinkled throughout, performed by an ace band (Pauline Sampson, Brietta Gregerm, Nathan Howland, Nicholas Martin and Drew Weber, directed by Lauren Bevilacqua) as well as the cast, who occasionally sing and turn up for solos on increasingly humorous instruments.
The pastiche music itself moves along from skiffle -- acoustic, jazz/folk/blues-influenced pop tunes played often on homemade instruments -- to British Invasion rock 'n roll in the style of the early Beatles. Highlights include the wonderfully harmonized trio number by the three ladies of the cast ("Lighten Up and Lay Low") and the rollicking "The Brighton Line." It's all a great treat to watch and listen to and you can bet I'm listening to the soundtrack as I type this.
Costumes by Patricia Tyler include nicely matching retro cardigans for the band and give a neat nod to Franics' roots in the commedia dell'arte Harlequin character by outfitting him in argyle. Klein's scenic design evokes the early '60s era and the whimsical look of Brighton pier and pavilion.
If you're looking to laugh (and you're not terrified by the possibility of -- shudder -- audience participation), "One Man, Two Guvnors" may be just your cup of tea.
What: "One Man, Two Guvnors."
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
When: Through June 30 (showtimes vary).
Info: PA Players.