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.