Center Theater

There’s nothing wrong with Two Many Bosses that a complete rewrite or three couldn’t fix. This musical comedy, a first effort for its authors, has an interesting concept and a few nice songs going for it in its premiere staging. Now all it needs is a script that is actually coherent and funny.

The show takes Carlo Goldoni’s 18th-century comedy The Servant of Two Masters and transports the action to New York’s Little Italy in the 1950s. The plot involves the classic commedia dell’arte elements of mistaken identity, crossdress masquerade, sexual confusion, and class conflict. Beatrice, the daughter of a powerful Mafia don, comes to the U.S. from Sicily in search of her lover Florindo, who is on the lam after having killed Beatrice’s brother in an argument. To evade detection, Beatrice disguises herself as her dead brother–and so finds herself having to deal with her brother’s fiancee, Clarice. While hunting for Florindo and trying to postpone marrying Clarice, Beatrice hires a servant–a Harlequinesque clown here called Johnny Linotro; the rascally, money-hungry Johnny then hires himself out as a bodyguard to Florindo as well. While trying to keep his two bosses–who, of course, are looking for each other–from discovering his duplicity, Johnny enters his own romantic entanglement with the saucy serving girl Lucia, who is the plaything of Clarice’s father, Pantalone.

In Goldoni’s original, this convoluted plot serves mainly as a hook for extended clowning–athletic acrobatics, silly wordplay, and a great deal of rude and noisy slapstick. (A fairly traditional version of The Servant of Two Masters was nicely staged at Lifeline Theatre earlier this season by commedia dell’arte expert John Szostek.) In translating Goldoni into a modern idiom, librettist Dan LaMorte (who directs with Dale Calandra) has lost hold of the material; instead of anarchic absurdity, we merely get messy confusion. Almost none of the intended comedy routines work; they’re flat and obvious, cliched rather than classic in their predictability, and they lack the semblance of spontaneity essential to good comedy (and certainly to good commedia). The single exception is a running gag about Clarice’s suitor Fabio, a would-be pop star in the Frankie Valli mold who travels in the company of three backup singers: every time Fabio faces a crisis, his buddies chime in with a doo-wop harmony for the occasion.

The weakest element in the show is the one that should be the strongest: the clown Johnny Linotro. Instead of a figure of zany inventiveness, Johnny is merely a dumb lounge lizard, a pathetic Pal Joey type who performs intermittent, second-rate song-and-dance numbers. Given nothing to work with in the script, actor Ted Koch mugs his way smarmily through the role, alienating rather than amusing us with his oily non-charm. (Koch, who here employs many of the same mannerisms he used in his very flawed Macheath in Prologue Theatre’s Threepenny Opera last season, is running the risk of wrecking his talent with bad shtick.)

The rest of the cast, like Koch, lack a sense of freedom and come off stiff and tense; as the lovers Florindo and Beatrice, Leo Daignault and Kathy Scambiatterra sing prettily but convey almost no romantic warmth. Despite their generally strong voices, none of the other performers come off much better; too often, the show’s efforts at humor consist of lame parodies of Italian mannerisms. The extravagance of old-world Italian behavior can be genuinely funny, but this stuff is embarrassing. Matters aren’t helped by Sheryl Nieman’s drab set or Liz Pazik’s clunky choreography.

The single successful aspect of the show is the score by composer-lyricist Donald Coates, a onetime rock musician now venturing into a theatrical writing career. The score is a skillful pastiche of 1950s-style doo-wop and pasta pop with an occasional foray into bebop–a limited stylistic gamut hardly to everyone’s taste, but executed quite professionally by the composer with the able assistance of musical director Carl DeSanti and arranger Frank Rumoro. However, the score needs a lot more diversity if Two Many Bosses is ever to have any real success; and at this early stage of his career, Coates would be well-advised to find his own musical voice rather than mimicking other styles.

The very looseness of commedia dell’arte makes it difficult to adapt to the tightly structured format of musical comedy; for LaMorte and Coates, this is a commendable, ambitious first effort at writing a musical. Now they must decide whether to dig in and fix this show or move on to other and better things. As it is, Two Many Bosses has too few laughs to be worth most audiences’ attention.