Robert Cuccioli inEnter the Guardsman
Robert Cuccioli in
Enter the Guardsman
As Enter the Guardsman begins, The Playwright (Mark Jacoby) starts to seduce the audience with his tale of a play within a play. As his story about the romantic machinations of The Actor (Robert Cuccioli) and The Actress (Marla Schaffel) unfolds, several wonderful things soon become apparent. First, the piece reveals itself to be something far more artful and penetrating than an old-fashioned musical comedy (as enjoyable as that may be). Second, Robert Cuccioli is himself a revelation, turning in an extravagantly self-mocking performance that makes good-natured fun of his Jekyll & Hyde persona. And third, Enter the Guardsman is the most accomplished new book musical to arrive on or Off-Broadway in far too long a time.

As adapted from Ferenc Molnar's The Guardsman by Scott Wentworth (book), Craig Bohmler (music), and Marion Adler (lyrics), the show has many of the fundamental elements of a musical comedy that might have been written in the 1930s. There's a wildly egocentric theatrical couple, a case of mistaken identity--and actual craft at work in the construction of every line, every scene. This would be enough to satisfy most theatergoers hungry for a return to the glorious entertainments of yesteryear, but the show goes one further in subtly upending any number of musical comedy conventions.

To begin with, while many famous musicals and comedies begin or end with a marriage, this one starts six months after the actor and the actress have wed; The Playwright makes a point of explaining at the top of show that he wants to see what happens after the initial heat of romance has burned away, which leads to an examination of the act of creation. As much as this Enter the Guardsman is about the way in which love regenerates itself, it is also a clever send-up of how a play (or a musical) is written. Consider the song sung when The Playwright can't figure out what to do with his characters: "They Die." This show gives every appearance of being a light and airy confection, but when you take a bite out of it, you find that it's chock full of rich ingredients. The ending of the show--which we wouldn't dream of giving away--is also unconventional, yet sweetly satisfying.

The wonderfully inventive plot of Enter the Guardsman turns on a simple, loving gesture that goes horribly awry: The Actor, in an attempt to rekindle the embers of his cooling marriage, sends his co-star wife a bouquet of roses without a note attached. She believes the flowers have come from an admirer in the audience, and therefore doesn't thank her husband. The Actor, upset, continues to send his wife flowers in ever-greater quantities until he finds he is actually competing with himself for his her love. Egged on by his confidante, The Playwright, The Actor decides to test his wife's fidelity by donning the disguise of her fantasy figure, a heroic guardsman. He believes himself to be such a great actor that she'll never realize who he is. Enter the guardsman--and, thanks to Scott Wentworth's witty book, enter the laughter.

Cuccioli, as the actor/guardsman, is astonishingly funny, offering heroic comedy on a par with Kevin Kline. The role calls for its performer to be foolish, passionate, pompous--often simultaneously--and always endearing. Anyone who saw Cuccioli in Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde will get particular pleasure out of watching him play dual roles yet again, this time sending himself up in the process. (He even has a J&H-style song in which he comically alternates between characters as they struggle for supremacy within his mind.) Before this show came to town, the musical theater world could be divided into two camps: Jekkies, who are unfailingly loyal both to Jekyll & Hyde and to Cuccioli, and those who can't understand how anyone could love the Wildhorn show. Now, those two camps might well meld into a third one called "Cuccies."

Mark Jacoby, Marla Schaffel,and Robert Cuccioli inEnter the Guardsman
Mark Jacoby, Marla Schaffel,
and Robert Cuccioli in
Enter the Guardsman
In addition to this star performance, Enter the Guardsman features a scene-stealing turn by Mark Jacoby; in fact, if Cuccioli weren't so extraordinary, the show could be retitled Enter the Playwright. As it is, the two male leads are as superbly matched as a bagel and cream cheese. Unfortunately, the role of The Actress simply doesn't offer the kind of opportunities afforded the male leads. Be that as it may, Marla Schaffel is a significant improvement over Dana Reeve, who played the part in the U.S. premiere of Guardsman at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival last year. Schaffel really keeps the audience guessing as to whether or not she recognizes that her husband is the guardsman.

As for the score, Craig Bohmler's music is tunefully melodic--and isn't that a pleasant surprise thee days? The comic numbers display a winsome spirit, while the romantic tunes have a sweet, melancholy quality. Marion Adler's lyrics are sometimes sharply observed, pointed, and piercingly funny. If there is an occasional tendency toward the banal in the romantic songs, it doesn't undercut the overall sense of intelligence and comic élan that runs through the entire score. Bohmler and Adler have clearly been influenced by Sondheim...but there are worse influences.

Director Scott Wentworth enhances his own book by giving the actors plenty of funny shtick to do, all of it explicating the characters and moving the story forward. The stage action is kinetic and dynamic; everyone is in motion, yet it never seems like movement for movement's sake. The production also boasts fluid sets and exquisite, Broadway level costumes by Molly Reynolds.

Enter the Guardsman is scheduled for a limited, four week engagement. It would be a terrible shame if a show that's so much better than any other new musical to open in New York in the season just past doesn't either extend or move to The Great White Way. Whatever happens to Enter the Guardsman, we certainly hope its creators and cast won't be forgotten next year at awards time.