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This review by Simon Saltzman was published by U.S. 1

Newspaper on September 22, 1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `Enter The Guardsman’

There is no denying the excitement and anticipation

that was in the air at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival for the

opening of "Enter The Guardsman." New York paparazzi and major

Broadway producers could be readily spotted among the usual shower

of stars and friends of stars. After all, the musical had won an international

musical competition and been produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the

Really Useful Group at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1997, the space

that spawned the acclaimed production of "Cabaret." This production

marks the American premiere of the musical that collaborators Scott

Wentworth (book), Craig Bohmler (music), and Marion Adler (lyrics),

based on Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s 1910, "The Guardsman."

That is the comedy that served, in a revised version in 1924, as a

notably successful Broadway vehicle for the famed married acting duo

Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

Moving on from its status as a vehicle to a Valentine to a by-gone

era, "Enter The Guardsman" is neither meant to be groundbreaking

or provocative. It is meant to be amusing and entertaining, and it

often is. Derived from a text that is pure romantic twaddle, the musical’s

titillating tone is cloaked in elegance and elan. If the score’s melodic

grace and lyrical charms sound like they’ve been strained from the

operetta world’s repertory, individual songs are flavored with ingratiating

sentiments. With these inherent weaknesses perceived as a given, the

new musical, far better I think than the play it is based on, has

its beguiling moments. These moments are provided by the performers,

most of who exhibit enough panache and skill to rise above a lot of

the creaky-by-design material. It is not a virtue to be dismissed.

Although the plot, about an actor and an actress who have been married

for six months and feel passion gradually fading in their relationship,

plays tricks with reality and fantasy, faithfulness and deception,

it pleasures in the bittersweet ups and downs of married life.

When the beautiful Actress, known for her short-lived love affairs

before her marriage, fails to share with her husband the note that

comes with a single rose sent to her by an admirer after a performance,

her husband begins to get jealous. Then, when the wife offers no explanation

about the deluge of bouquets that are subsequently brought to her

dressing room after each performance, the husband becomes obsessed

with testing her faithfulness. Of course, he is the secret admirer.

But to set the trap, he must play the part of the admirer in disguise.

So, exit the husband to play Hamlet in the provinces ("It is a

good part," she says) and enter the guardsman to play the ardent

and amorous seducer. Is the Actress really duped? Is the Actor a dope?

And are we to believe that all it takes to deceive an intimate is

a glued-on mustache and a costume off the rack. Well, if it worked

for Shakespeare, Pirandello, and countless other playwrights since

the great flood, we must allow Molnar and his adapters the same latitude.

The six-piece orchestra is perched at the back of the stage, which

has been artfully designed by Molly Reynolds to transform itself gracefully

from onstage, to backstage, to the wings of a theater. The shifting

of racks of costumes and a few pieces of dressing room furniture do

all that is necessary to create a proper theatrical environment. Whether

it is the insinuations made by a waltz theme, the way our heartbeat

quickens in response to a rhapsodic love duet, or just our delight

in another tango take-off, the Bohmler/Adler score ultimately suggests

a fragile and sweet confection, tasty if not particularly nourishing.

Wentworth’s facile direction goes a long way to keep the tempo

up when the torpor of repetition threatens to descend.

A far cry from the dour and dark postures he assumed

in the roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in the Broadway production

of "Jekyll & Hyde," Robert Cuccioli plays the Actor with hilariously

egotistical suavity, and propels the often inert action with an unending

flair for the unexpected flourish. Notwithstanding the distraction

of his long, greasy-looking hair, when playing the distressed husband,

Cuccioli can be side-splittingly funny. Before he eventually assumes

his guardsman’s guise, and a short curly hairpiece, he performs a

tour-de-force called "The Actor’s Fantasy," in which he fantasizes

himself, with an appropriate display of melodramatics, first as a

fearless jungle explorer, then as a smoldering desert sheik.

Dana Reeve is lovely to look at in designer Molly Reynolds’ glamorous,

fin-de-siecle costumes, and sings and acts the role of the restless

Actress with a deftly assigned reality. But one too rarely sees any

evidence of the tantalizing temperament or the varied emotional color

that has made this woman of the world cum dramatic diva so exciting

to so many men. Reeve is at her most endearing and sly in the duet

with her Dresser and confidante, "You Have The Ring," as she

attempts to justify a romantic rendezvous. And you would have to be

heartless not to be warmed by the voices of Reeve and Cuccioli, as

they cling together like Jeannette Macdonald and Nelson Eddy for the

reprise of "My One Great Love."

More inventively assigned to propel the action is the character of

the Playwright who weaves in and through the twists and turns of the

plot as a co-conspirator and provocateur. Mark Jacoby plays the Playwright

in the manner of a worldly and roguish Noel Coward, and succeeds by

completely seducing both the players and the audience with his stylishly

sophisticated presence and with his innuendo-filled bon mots.

The musical works surprisingly well with only seven characters. Three

minor characters — a wardrobe mistress (Kate Dawson), a wig master

(Russell Ferracane), and an assistant stage manager (Buddy Crutchfield)

— share one of the wittiest and silliest musical numbers in the

show, "She’s A Little Off," in which they take turns tearing

apart the Actress’s performance. And as the Playwright so wisely sums

up close to the show’s conclusion, "You have to hand it to romance.

What it lacks in originality, it makes up in repetition." Maybe

that’s enough.

— Simon Saltzman

Enter The Guardsman, New Jersey Shakespeare Festival,

Kirby Shakespeare Theater, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison, 973-408-5600.

$24 to $38. Through October 3.

A performance to benefit the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation

will be Sunday, September 26, at 7 p.m. The $100 tickets include a

cocktail reception at 5:30 p.m. 973-408-3761.


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