You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Enter the Guardsman

The theater returns to its favorite topic --- itself --- in "Enter the Guardsman," a beguiling but exceedingly minor musical that may take at least another staging to transform it into the major original show for which one had every reason to hope. The finished product seems as emotionally attenuated and rhetorically overstretched.

Cast: Nicky Henson (the Playwright), Janie Dee (the Actress), Alexander Hanson (the Actor), Angela Richards (the Dresser), Jeremy Finch (the Assistant Stage Manager), Walter Van Dyk (the Wigs Master), Nicola Sloane (the Wardrobe Mistress).

The theater returns to its favorite topic — itself — in “Enter the Guardsman,” a beguiling but exceedingly minor musical that may take at least another staging to transform it into the major original show for which one had every reason to hope. Winner of last year’s first Intl. Musical of the Year competition in Aarhus, Denmark, the finished product seems as emotionally attenuated and rhetorically overstretched as last fall’s 20-minute excerpt (with a different cast) was cogent and witty.

The first in a three-year sponsorship deal between the Donmar Warehouse and the Really Useful Group, “Guardsman” furthers this playhouse’s admirable commitment to new musical talent even as it demands a tougher directorial eye (not to mention a truly full-throated and expansive ensemble) if “Enter the Guardsman” is to enter musical annals as more than a mild Sondheimian footnote. At present, it plays as an homage of sorts to “A Little Night Music” without approaching that show’s defining mixture of rapture and tristesse: You leave charmed but never particularly moved.

Scott Wentworth’s book takes as its source Molnar’s 1910 “The Guardsman,” a bittersweet backstage romance that, beginning with its 1924 Broadway premiere, provided an ongoing vehicle for the Lunts.

Eight months into a relationship, an actress (Janie Dee) is walking through both her performance and her marriage to an actor (Alexander Hanson). Watched over by a bisexual go-between playwright (Nicky Henson) eager to monitor what happens “after the curtain falls,” the actor/husband anonymously sends his wife roses, later disguising himself as a lovesick, mustachioed guardsman in an effort to revive a flagging relationship — but not before putting it to the test.

The wife succumbs to this “stranger’s” advances, though not sufficiently to forsake her husband altogether. His distinctive style of courtship, she claims, enabled her to see all the while through the masquerade. In the end, love flourishes in disguise: Only as someone else can the actor deepen an affection that never turns adulterous, even if it takes the guardsman to lend their liaison the element of danger that keeps passion alive.

Paying witness to events on Francis O’Connor’s set of piled high crates are Henson’s aging theater ghost (the evening’s most accomplished performance) and an ever-droll dresser (played by Angela Richards, a proven hand at world-weary asides). Rounding out the cast are Jeremy Finch, Walter Van Dyk and Nicola Sloane, a trio whose first-act number, “Language of Flowers,” might be more effective if the performers could actually sing. (Finch, as the assistant stage manager, is especially underwhelming.) Indeed, it’s one of the problems of Jeremy Sams’ thoughtful but incomplete production that we are always aware of the effort involved in putting across delicate, evanescent material.

Chief offender on that front is Hanson’s leading man, who lacks the charisma and allure for a part that could be cast countless times over in New York. (His best moment is a hilarious “Hamlet” joke early on at the expense of his own physique.) Co-star Dee, the invaluable Carrie Pipperidge of Nicholas Hytner’s London “Carousel,” brings her usually peppery command to a more modern woman than the turn-of-the-century setting might suggest. But some of Craig Bohmler’s score sits uneasily on her voice, and she and Hanson strike no discernible sparks.

The score, in turn, rarely takes off the way it should, notwithstanding the expert contributions of music director Mark Warman (an alumnus of the Donmar’s lustrously played “Nine”) and David Firman’s orchestrations, which honor sources as diverse as Strauss, Gershwin and (unmistakably in the final number, “Art Imitating Life”) Sondheim’s “Children and Art.” Henson’s mock-thunderous “They Die” begins well but runs out of invention, while “My One True Love” is undercut by a staging that reduces enchantment to the hokey, just as the rousing title song loses out to the (literally) flag-waving footwork of Andrew George’s desultory choreography.

One finally is left waiting for the life-as-theater metaphor to play itself out in a work too busy exploring every facet of that trope (“we expect life to behave like a well-made play” and so on). It’s as if the nascent wit of the material has been spread thin across an evening that yearns to be more than merely wistful but isn’t sure how to get there.

Enter the Guardsman

Donmar Warehouse, London; 251 seats; £20 ($32) top

Production: A Donmar Warehouse production of a musical in two acts based on Ferenc Molnar's "The Guardsman," music by Craig Bohmler, lyrics by Marion Adler, book by Scott Wentworth. Directed by Jeremy Sams.

Creative: Sets and costumes, Francis O'Connor; lighting, Mark Henderson; musical staging, Andrew George; orchestrations, David Firman; music direction, Mark Warman; sound, John A. Leonard. Running time: 2 HOURS, 5 MIN. Opened, reviewed Sept. 17, 1997.
Musical numbers: "The First Night," "Chopin," "My One Great Love," "Language of Flowers," "Drama," "Actor's Fantasy," "You Have the Ring," "Enter the Guardsman," "True to Me," "She's a Little Off," "I Can't Go On," "Waiting in the Wings," "My One Great Love," "They Die," "In the Long Run," "Art Imitating Life."

Cast: Cast: Nicky Henson (the Playwright), Janie Dee (the Actress), Alexander Hanson (the Actor), Angela Richards (the Dresser), Jeremy Finch (the Assistant Stage Manager), Walter Van Dyk (the Wigs Master), Nicola Sloane (the Wardrobe Mistress).

More Legit

  • All My Sons review

    Broadway Review: 'All My Sons' With Annette Bening

    Don’t be fooled by the placid backyard setting, neighborly small talk and father-son joviality at the start of the Roundabout Theatre Company’s blistering revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons” starring Annette Bening and Tracy Letts. There are plenty of secrets, resentments and disillusionments ahead, poised to rip this sunny Middle Americana facade to shreds. [...]

  • A still image from The Seven

    How Magic Leap, Video Games Are Defining Future of Royal Shakespeare Company

    At the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford upon Avon, Sarah Ellis has the difficult job of figuring out where theater of the 1500s fits into the 21st century. As Director of Digital Development, a title which might seem out of place in an industry ruled by live, human performances, Ellis represents a recent seachange on [...]

  • Gary review

    Broadway Review: 'Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus' With Nathan Lane

    Nathan Lane and Kristine Nielsen, two of the funniest people on the face of the earth, play street cleaners tasked with carting away the dead after the civil wars that brought down the Roman Empire. Well, a job’s a job, and Gary (Lane) and Janice (Nielsen) go about their disgusting work without complaint. “Long story [...]

  • Laurie Metcalf, John Lithgow'Hillary and Clinton'

    Why John Lithgow Worried About Starring in Broadway's 'Hillary and Clinton'

    When Lucas Hnath first conceived of “Hillary and Clinton” in 2008, he was writing for and about a very different America. Now, a total reimagining of the show has made its way to Broadway with Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in the titular roles. At the opening on Thursday night, the cast and creatives talked [...]

  • Three Sisters review

    London Theater Review: 'Three Sisters'

    Ennui has become exhaustion in playwright Cordelia Lynn’s new version of “Three Sisters.” The word recurs and recurs. Everyone on the Prozorov estate is worn out; too “overworked” to do anything but sit around idle. Are they killing time or is time killing them? Either way, a play often framed as a study of boredom [...]

  • Patrick Page, Amber Grey, Eva Noblezada,

    'Hadestown' Took 12 Years to Get to Broadway, but It's More Relevant Than Ever

    When “Hadestown” was first staged as a tiny, DIY theater project in Vermont, those involved could never have predicted that it was the start of a 12-year journey to Broadway — or how painfully relevant it would be when it arrived. At Wednesday night’s opening at the Walter Kerr Theatre, the cast and creatives discussed [...]

  • Hillary and Clinton review

    Broadway Review: Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow in 'Hillary and Clinton'

    If anyone could play Hillary Clinton, it’s Laurie Metcalf – and here she is, in Lucas Hnath’s “Hillary and Clinton,” giving a performance that feels painfully honest and true. And if anyone could capture Bill Clinton’s feckless but irresistible charm, that would be John Lithgow – and here he is, too. Who better to work [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content