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|A CurtainUp Review
Enter the Guardsman
A Musical Romance
Enter the Guardsman, the chamber musical (8-member cast, 8-member orchestra) comes to its limited run New York City premiere with impressive credentials. It won the Musical of the Year Award in Aarhus, Denmark and after running at London's Donmar Warehouse (Fall 1997) in association with Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group received an Olivier Award nomination for Best Musical. Its American premiere at last season's NJ Shakespeare Festival garnered some very positive reviews.
Instead of trying to come up with a new story, Scott Wentworth (who also directs) has adapted Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman, (1911) the fin-de-siecle marital comedy that launched Lunt and Fontaine's legendary theatrical partnership and inspired such variations on its bittersweet happy ending as Harold Pinter's The Lover. Wentworth adheres to Molnar's timeless plot device (also used by Mozart in his opera Cosi Fan Tutte ) of a jealous husband who tests his life's fidelity by wooing her in disguise.
Wentworth, besides turning the play into a musical, has transformed it into a backstage romance: The jealous husband is an actor who, seeing the bloom wearing off the romance in his still new marriage to his co-star, sends her a rose -- anonymously. When she hides it from him he continues to send more roses, thus feeding her romantic fantasies and ending up competing with himself for her affection. Being an actor, it doesn't take much to take the next step. He meets her disguised as the would-be lover. Even though all ends well he can never be sure if his wife responded to his make-believe persona or saw through the disguise.
The new book changes the functions of the characters. The third key character, the critic, is now a playwright. His genre: romances (naturally!). His self-deprecating "that means I write the same thing over and over again" makes clear that his fascination with the actor's suit of his wife in the guise of a dashing Russian guardsman has everything to do with his turning what happens into his next opus.
New also are Craig Bohmler's score and Marion Adler's lyrics. While the play has been previously musicalized (in the 1941 movie The Chocolate Soldier and in a 1951 road show with songs added for its leading lady, movie operetta diva Jeannette McDonald), Bohmler's and Adler's more than a dozen solos, duets and ballads are very much in the modern musical tradition with an old-fashioned emphasis on melody -- from the rousing title song by the entire company to the playwright-oberver-audience confidante winding things up singing:
I read it in a bookPromising as it all sounds, this small-scale musical somehow has lost much of the feather-light piquancy that defined Molnar's farce. Furthermore, Wentworth's back stage plot and the tuneful and often witty score and lyrics are all too derivative to prevent unfavorable comparisons: Kiss Me Kate, currently enjoying a justly acclaimed revival comes to mind, as does Sondheim's A Little Night Music.
With the exception of the leading lady, the current production features the same cast as at the NJ Shakespeare Festival. Robert Cuccioli fans (and there seem to be many) should be pleased to see him reprising his way with a dual role. Unlike the good Jekyll and evil Hyde, his actor-guardsman duality show off some flair for the comic, though Cuccioli has not forfeited his penchant for the melodramatic. His insecure self-absorbed actor has an endearing touch of vulnerability. As directed by Wentworth, his guardsman is more foolish than flamboyant. The comic side of Cuccioli is at its best in his duet with Jacoby, "The Actor's Fantasy."
Marla Schaffel, brings the same strong voice and stage presence our LA correspondent noted in his review of Jane Eyre. She is also appropriately beautiful. However, with the guardsman directed to play his role so broadly, she has a hard time making the did-she-or-didn't she twist convincing. Mark Jacoby is a debonair and charming playwright, but having to act as the audience confidante puts a considerable strain on his talents.
The supporting cast's characters are types more than real characters and the attempt to make more of the dresser (Derin Altay) than meets the eye seems superfluous. Altay does deliver her two big numbers, "You Have the Ring" and "Waiting in the Wings" splendidly.
The production is greatly enhanced by Molly Reynold's scrumptious period costumes and the on stage and backstage set which includes two portable dressing rooms. The ensemble's frequent bustling on and off stage along with the props smacks a bit too much of a small show trying to look as if it were bigger. The "Language of Flowers" during which the entire stage is abloom with the guardsman's roses is the most effective visual touch, the closest thing we come to a real production number.
With two prestigious previous productions to its credit, Enter The Guardsman's short Off-Broadway stay is obviously designed as a stepping stone to another life. Like the first Bohmler-Adler-Wentworth collaboration, a musical noir called Gun Metal Blues, it is likely to enjoy numerous regional productions. It is in a decidedly too minor a key to follow in the footsteps of Molnar's Liliom, which became the hit musical Carousel.
LINKS TO SHOWS MENTIONED
Jekyll and Hyde
the musical Jane Eyre (starring Schaffel)
The Guardsman at the Pearl Theatre