There is a laugh riot at The Music Box, a British import that pays homage to commedia dell' arte with a modern twist. One Man, Two Guvnors is simply the funniest play on Broadway. From its stupendously silly one-liners -- "first names are for girls and Norwegians" -- to its outrageously silly plot, the show is a triumph of slapstick and satire.
It's set in Brighton, England, in 1963. Francis Henshall (the brilliant James Corden) has been sacked from his skiffle band and grabs two jobs: becoming the manservant of gangster Roscoe/Rachel Crabbe (Jemima Rooper) and Rachel's boyfriend Stanley Stubbers (Oliver Chris). Neither employer is aware of the other -- and keeping track of their demands is a template for comic joy.
Throw in a side plot, where Roscoe must marry Pauline (Claire Lams), already engaged to over-the-top actor (Daniel Rigby), whose affectations are priceless, and the wackiness is complete. There are gags, visual and verbal, nonstop humor and even the occasional ad lib from Corden for the audience. The secondary roles, waiter Alfie (Tom Edden) and sexy secretary Dolly (Suzie Toaste) are a scream.
Directed with precision-like flair by Nicholas Hytner, the hilarious show, written by Richard Bean and based on the 18th century The Servant of Two Masters, is amazing to watch. Corden is in nearly every scene, and his cherubic charisma clicks with the audience. Plus, the scenes are punctuated with terrific music from the band The Craze, a talented Beatles-like foursome. From first moment to last, One Man, Two Guvnors is pandemonium.
Insanity of a different order is on view at the Belasco, where Tracie Bennett is giving a tour de force performance as Judy Garland in the riveting End of the Rainbow, a second British import.
Exhausted, broke and drug addicted, she struggles to live each day. Rainbow is set in a London hotel and nightclub in December 1968, where Judy, still beloved by fans, is staging another comeback. Yet for all the exhilaration and sheer titanic talent the woman possesses, she cannot fight the inevitable.
Garland is joined by soon-to-be fifth husband Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), another in a long line of hoped-for protectors, and pianist Anthony (a wonderful Michael Cumpsty), an amalgam of all the gay men who adored her.
Garland was a thoroughbred, yet treated by the studios as a workhorse. Drugged at 12 by MGM to maintain a brutal shooting schedule, and hounded by a terrifying stage mother, she never had a chance. The miracle is that she produced such an extraordinary body of work -- both in film and concerts. Her voice, her delivery, is magnificent.
Her mythology is well known; so is her magic. What's remarkable is that Bennett has captured her spirit, voice and signature moves with uncanny accuracy. More than mimic her physicality, however, Bennett has beautifully caught her essence: funny, flirtatious, compelling and driven by demons. Rainbow is a stunning showcase for Bennett's considerable talents and a reminder of just how powerful and irreplaceable Garland was.
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