SARASOTA -- It's easy to see why 'One Man, Two Guvnors' was a hit in London and on Broadway, and why it helped turn James Corden into a star in this country. The script, an adaptation of the commedia dell'arte classic "Servant of Two Masters," is witty and clever, with lots of great lines and fast-paced antics.
It also allows its lead actor lots of room to improvise. Corden had the lead in both the London and Broadway productions, and it was reportedly that performance, and the acclaim that it generated, that led his being invited to take over the "The Late Late Show" after Craig Ferguson left.
Sarasota's Florida Studio Theatre has just mounted a new production of "Guvnors," and it points out the play's strength and its perils. Richard Bean's script demands crisp timing, exceptional improvisation and perfectly executed physical comedy. On opening night, the FST production missed all three of those elements by just a little bit. The show ended up silly rather than funny. The physical comedy, especially, fell flat. It looked like overly familiar Three Stooges-style slapstick.
That's not to say it was unenjoyable. There are some great individual performances, especially from FST newcomer Christina King, some very funny lines scattered throughout the evening, and a lot of great songs played by an onstage band in between scenes.
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Bean keeps the basic plot of "Servant of Two Masters" but moves it to England in 1963. The story revolves around a man named Francis who's hungry and in need of employment. He stumbles into two jobs on the same day. He's essentially a personal assistant to two different men. For reasons that aren't quite clear -- but probably would have been obvious to the 18th-century audiences who first saw "Servant of Two Masters" -- it would apparently be disastrous if he disclosed that he's holding two jobs.
The problem, or at least one of the problems, is that Francis is none too bright, so he ends up confusing himself while he's trying to deceive everyone around him. Besides that, one of the "guvnors" is a woman disguised as her dead twin brother, who's gay and betrothed to an air-headed young woman who's in love with someone else.
Nothing makes much sense, and it's not really supposed to. Unfortunately, instead of seeming pleasantly nonsensical, it's confusing for the audience. After a while, it's hard to keep caring about the story.
Bean often has his characters addressing the audience directly, and director Joseph Discher adds some Vaudevillian flavor to the acting style, which complements the script perfectly.
Bean even inserts audience participation into the proceedings. That's always tricky, and on opening night that aspect slowed down the show and added nothing.
Besides King, the best performances come from Connor Carew as Francis and Vanessa Morosco as the object of his clumsy attempts at seduction.
The most consistent fun comes from the band (Tony Bruno, Tommy Crawford, Sean Tillis, Teddy Yudain and James Zap, some of whom also act in the show) who play original songs by Grant Olding. the songs are in a variety of '60s styles, from skiffle to Beatles-style pop-rock, and they're all catchy pop tunes.
Some of the things that make opening night fall a little flat are likely to be better on other nights, later in the run. The audience participation stuff is always going to be hit-or-miss. Even at its worst, though, "One Man, Two Guvnors" will be a pleasant time-passer.
Details: Through Jan. 10, Gompertz Theatre at Florida Studio Theatre, 1241 N. Palm Ave., Sarasota. Show times: 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday; additional 3 p.m. matinees on Wednesday, Dec. 23 and Jan. 6 and Friday, Dec. 18. No performances Dec. 24. Tickets: $25-$42. Information: 941-366-9000, floridastudiotheatre.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.