In 2012, Brian Gonzales got the role of a lifetime: Francis Henshall in the Broadway production of One Man, Two Guvnors. The play, Richard Bean's reinterpretation of Carlo Goldoni's 1743 Italian comedy Servant of Two Masters, was a smash success, and the portrayal of Francis earned a Tony that year for Best Actor in a Play. But instead of accepting the award, Gonzales, the understudy, watched James Corden go up to receive it.
Although Gonzales got to perform for New York audiences twice in Corden's absence, this month he's finally getting a taste of what it's like to be the leading man every night. He's playing Francis in the regional premiere of One Man at WaterTower Theatre in Addison through August 28. "Getting to put my stamp on it is quite a thrill," he says.
The play follows Francis in his work as a right hand man to two different criminals staying at the same hotel, each of whom must be kept a secret from the other. In the first act, Francis' central motivation is to find food. In the second act, it's gaining the love of the voluptuous secretary Dolly, played by Gonzales' wife, Ashley Puckett.
Most of the humor is smart slapstick and one-liners. The story progresses unconventionally, with improvisation, breaking of the fourth wall and interludes by a band, the Quids. They open and close the show and play while the set's being changed. During set changes the actors also come out to display their musical talents on various kitschy instruments such as the xylophone.
Gonzales grew up in Dallas, attending W.E. Greiner Exploratory Arts Academy in Oak Cliff and Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Outside of the classroom, he studied acting at the Dallas Theater Center, Garland Children's Theater and Plano Repertory Theatre, where he met Puckett. He's lived in New York with his family for the last 12 years, and he's been on stage as Babkak in Disney's Aladdin for five.
Gonzales says growing up in Dallas' robust theater scene gave him the tools he needed to make it as an actor in New York. "[The institutions in Dallas] not only helped form my brain but also helped me form a thick enough skin," he says.
You might think Gonzales views coming home to a regional theater as a step down after performing on the Great White Way, but he says the theater here is as good as anywhere. "I can proudly say that there’s very little difference in quality," he says. "Most of the differences I see are physical. We have bigger houses [in New York] or the prop department has more money and technology. I’m working for Disney. They have remarkable resources. But the creative process here or in New York is the same."
The production at WaterTower is indeed on a smaller scale than the Broadway version, but otherwise it's essentially the same play. In addition to his wife, Gonzales is supported by a talented crew of local actors, including Sonny Franks and Jeff Colangelo, who gives a remarkable turn as resilient waiter Alfie.
One actress, Alexandra Lawrence — playing gangster Rachel Crabbe, Francis' second boss — seemed to veer in and out of her British accent, but on the whole it was a show of superb acting and a major achievement for director Terry Martin, who recently gave up his position as artistic director of WaterTower theater. A regional premiere of a show like One Man, Two Guvnors is a big get, and particularly with Gonzales in the main role it's a final act that leaves WaterTower in a better position than ever despite Martin's departure.
Gonzales says they've received a positive response from Dallas audiences, although he notices Dallas theatergoers tend to be more reserved than those in New York. "That doesn’t mean they’re not with you," he says. "They just may not be as loud of laughers." He says crude humor, F-bombs and political jokes tend to play slightly less well here than up North, too.
But Gonzales enjoys coming back to Dallas to play for smaller crowds, which he was able to do for the first time in several years thanks to Disney, who granted him leave from his rigorous 8-show-a-week schedule. The Broadway version One Man, Two Guvnors often played to a house of 1,500 to 1,700 people. At WaterTower the theater accommodates 200. "That changes the show a lot," Gonzales says, "[In New York] you have to do the show up and out and sell it to the back wall of the house. But here they're right in front of you."
That's particularly useful for Gonzales' favorite scenes, when he brings audience members up on stage. The improvisation required for his role as Francis might intimidate some actors, but it's second nature to Gonzales, who studied improv beginning in high school at Booker T. "I love being able to have that freedom," he says. "If something goes wrong on stage, I have the freedom to call attention to it or divert the attention."
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The role also demands a lot of an actor physically, which is ironic considering how many of the jokes are built around Francis' heft and love of fish and chips. Performing it four nights a week, Gonzales has had to make sure that he doesn't get too slim to play Babkak, itself a high energy role with lots of pulsing and bouncing.
Thankfully the costume departments for both productions can help compensate to make Gonzales look larger than he is. For One Man, Two Guvnors they've put him in an unflattering suit, and his Babkak costume has hips sewn into it. While he's in Dallas, Gonzales will continue to practice the Aladdin choreography once a week to make sure he's prepared for his return.
In the meantime, Gonzales is most grateful that his and his wife's family are available to watch after their 3-year-old son Simon, so that they can revisit their days acting together in Dallas. "Ashley and I are having such a ball doing this together," he says. "I think she’s such a force to contend with. It may be close to 15 years ago that we did Sunday in the Park with George at Plano Repertory Theater. It's akin to that and it’s a privilege to do these roles together."
See One Man, Two Guvnors at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, through August 28. Tickets are $25 at watertowertheatre.org.