Maybe they shouldn’t even try to write them like they used to. “Enter the Guardsman” is an old-fashioned musical with hummable tunes by composer Craig Bohmler and lyricist Marion Adler and a book by Scott Wentworth that’s as solid as its source, Ferenc Molnar’s chestnut “The Guardsman.” If only the actors onstage sported the same pedigree. Another cast might work hard to charm us with this story of a husband who disguises himself as a military officer in order to test his wife’s fidelity only to rediscover the passionate lover he is. The actors at the Dimson Theater only work hard, and unfortunately, effort and charm are the oil and water of theater. Wentworth also directs here, and his ensemble is uniformly manic; he seems to have confused light farce with heavy-duty slapstick. As for the requisite charm, the actors’ considerable effort not only shows, it sinks the production.
“Enter the Guardsman” was first presented at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 1997. At the time, what American producer could have guessed that a Broadway revival of “Kiss Me, Kate” would be one of the biggest hits of the current theater season? Both shows are backstage stories involving actor couples. In “Kate,” they’re divorced, fighting and madly in love. In “Enter the Guardsman,” they’re married, fighting and simply bored. Any other comparisons are not good news for “Guardsman.”
As the legit fates would have it, the creators of 1948’s “Kiss Me, Kate” based their dueling pair on one of the great theatrical teams of the day, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who just happened to star in Molnar’s “The Guardsman” for the Theater Guild, playing 248 performances in the 1924-25 season. The farce also marked the legendary couple’s only joint screen appearance, in the MGM film version of 1931. Apparently, the couple didn’t care for the way they appeared on film, so they quickly returned to the theater where they never had to watch themselves perform again.
Lunt and Fontanne were renowned for their facility at overlapping, rapid-fire dialogue. Wentworth tries something similar with his couple, Robert Cuccioli and Marla Schaffel, but the results are not felicitous. This may be one of the only times when the critical observation “fast-paced direction” is anything but a compliment. Equally problematic are the cast’s English accents, which they wear with all the comfort of new Italian shoes. Maybe Christopher Walken’s Yankee take on the Gabriel Conroy role in “James Joyce’s The Dead” was the right choice after all.
Schaffel’s singing began a little flat, but eventually arrived on pitch. The same cannot be said for the rest of her performance.
Cuccioli doesn’t quite know how to be overly theatrical without appearing overly absurd. Surprisingly, he grows markedly more restrained in the second act when he dons the guardsman’s wig and uniform to become a subdued yet ardent lover. The transformation is genuine — and a relief. Here and elsewhere, Molly Reynolds’ costumes are sumptuous yet witty, as is her set design for the backstage world of a 19th century theater, bathed in gold tones by lighting designer Jeff Croiter. Only Cuccioli’s ponytail from a century earlier is out of place in this period.
As book writer, Wentworth takes bits of the Critic character from the original Molnar to create the Playwright, an emcee of sorts, played by Mark Jacoby, who proved himself more than capable in “Show Boat” and “Ragtime.” Here, the actor shows no flair for farce, with overly arch line readings. In one big showstopper that all but stops the show, Jacoby skips about as racks of costumes revolve around him in Busby Berkeley style. Onstage or off, grown men should never skip. Equally dreary, Wentworth’s idea of a running gag is that one of the supporting characters, the Wig Master (Rusty Ferracane), happens to be gay.
Bohmler and Adler have written some lovely retro songs — “Tonight Was Like the First Night,” “My One Great Love” and “Waiting in the Wings” — that would hold their own in any classic American musical of the 1950s. Otherwise, their score is overfilled with ordinary patter tunes that only recall Stephen Sondheim’s far more seductive waltzes from “A Little Night Music.” That said, what other new musical has three — count ’em, three — great songs?