"Enter the Guardsman" is a clever little confection that enjoyably passes the time at Laguna Playhouse but never quite soars.
The musical artfully toys with ideas of passion and fantasy and maintains a brisk comic facade, but ultimately it neither probes its themes deeply nor reaches uproariously hilarious heights.
Librettist Scott Wentworth, composer Craig Bohmler and lyricist Marion Adler used "The Guardsman," a 1911 romantic comedy by Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnar, as their source. It was a 1924 vehicle for Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.
In the plot, two star actors have been married for six months, performing in the same play all that time. But now the leading lady is beginning to recall how exciting it used to be to anticipate a new love. Her husband decides to test her fidelity by becoming her new love himself, disguised as a dashing military officer--the Guardsman.
The actors had Hungarian names, Nandor and Ilona, in the original; here, in an apparent attempt to universalize the material, they're simply "An Actor" and "An Actress." The musical also is more up-to-date in its suggestions of how far the "affair" goes and in glancing references to the homosexuality of a subsidiary character.
Yet the material remains mildly musty. The Actor refers to having seen Sarah Bernhardt--and his choice of an alter ego marks the unspecified period as a time when audiences would readily understand the concept of a middle-European Guardsman.
Wentworth moved the action from the couple's drawing room and a box seat at the opera to a single location, backstage at the theater where they perform. This makes sense, for these two are most at home when they're role-playing. Wentworth also changed the pair's mutual best friend from a critic into "A Playwright," who wrote their current vehicle and who is taking notes on their behavior for his next play. This shift increases the character's credibility, giving his frequent appearances a much stronger pretext.
Alterations on the next most important character aren't as successful. In the original, a housekeeper pretended she was the actress' mother--and butted into the star's affairs, expressing open disdain for the actor. Here she's the actress' backstage dresser. Her criticisms are toned down. In a solo, she reveals that she used to be an actress herself. It's a pretty but extraneous song that retards the narrative momentum.
The time devoted to that song would have been better spent in a slightly more developed denouement. The friction between the actors dissolves too easily, and the actress doesn't get to make a strong enough case for her own ability to act her way around her husband's deception.
The score is strong. Bohmler's melodies are appropriately old-fashioned and solid. Adler's lyrics succeed in refreshing old cliches with vigorous turns of phrase.
Wentworth's elegant staging is well cast. At first Andrew Barnicle, the playhouse's artistic director who is moonlighting as the Actor, appears too Laguna-like for the role, with his blond haircut. But after he assumes the look of the Guardsman, the contrast is so distinct that the earlier look seems more reasonable. Barnicle handles the Guardsman's slapstick and momentary slip-ups with masterful timing. His versatile voice moves flexibly between the two characters, coarsening only occasionally on the longest-held notes.
Barbara Passolt delivers a first-rate prima donna as the Actress, not surprisingly for those who saw her in "On the Twentieth Century" at the Colony. Precisely when she catches on to her husband's ruse remains a bit of a mystery, but then the Actress has been well trained in how to dissemble her true feelings, and Passolt makes the mystery seductive.
Ann Sheffield's otherwise simple set manages to make Dennis Castellano's expert onstage band look like ghostly figures in the Hungarian theater's pit, and Paulie Jenkins' lighting ably develops a recurrent rose motif from the script.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* "Enter the Guardsman," Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays except Dec. 3, 7 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 3. $34 to $41. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
P.M. Howard: A Playwright
Andrew Barnicle: An Actor
Barbara Passolt: An Actress
Jo Ann Cunningham: A Dresser
Kevin Earley: An Assistant Stage Manager
Chuck Rosen: A Wigs Master
Melissa Fahn: A Wardrobe Mistress
Book and direction by Scott Wentworth. Music by Craig Bohmler. Lyrics by Marion Adler. Set and costumes by Ann Sheffield. Lighting by Paulie Jenkins. Sound by David Edwards. Musical director Dennis Castellano. Stage manager Alice Harkins.