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Enter the Guardsman

Northlight Theatre

By Erik Piepenburg

No matter how you roast Ferenc Molnar's 1910 play The Guardsman, it was an old chestnut in its first incarnation and remains one today, in the nutty 1996 musical adaptation Enter the Guardsman. In the syrupy-sweet story, an actor (David New) puts his actress wife (Hollis Resnik) of six months to the test by disguising himself as a secret admirer showering her with flowers and accolades. He's aided, in spirit and word, by a playwright (John Reeger) who's clearly in love with the actor's wife and who narrates the action between the weary spouses with the self-deprecating air of a Tennessee Williams. This agreeably romantic glimpse of that mystery called marriage was created way before Mars-Venus conflicts made their way to the stage in sophisticated form (Noel Coward), angst-ridden form (Woody Allen), and oafish form (Rob Becker).

Other than Liliom, on which Rodgers and Hammerstein based the musical Carousel, The Guardsman is Molnar's most noted play: it introduced the legendary husband-wife comedy duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne to the Broadway stage. They teamed up for the first time to play a married couple in the Theatre Guild's 1924 New York production of Molnar's play, which ran for 248 performances. (That was a distinct improvement over the comedy's initial New York run in 1911, under the title Where Ignorance Is Bliss, when it lasted just a week.) Lunt and Fontanne resurfaced as the dueling newlyweds in 1927 and 1928 and once again in the 1931 MGM film, their only starring roles on celluloid. The film, directed by Sidney Franklin, was remade in 1941 as a movie musical, The Chocolate Soldier.

But even aside from the work's long history, if the names Lunt and Fontanne mean anything to you, you'll get a kick out of Northlight Theatre's old-fashioned, innocent happy face of a show. With the kind of panache Lunt and Fontanne would have savored, it offers monochromatic smiles, rapid-fire dialogue, and sweeping, easy emotions.

Molnar's comic premise--switching identities to uncover where a beloved's true heart resides--worked wonders for Shakespeare. (And consider the cross-dressers in Mrs. Doubtfire, Tootsie, and Some Like It Hot: getting in touch with one's feminine side in a nice pair of pumps and a cinched girdle is apparently one of the surest ways modern man can truly know the object of his affection.) In Enter the Guardsman, the husband tells his wife he's leaving town to play Hamlet, then dons a soldier's hat, fake mustache, and harsh accent and poses as his wife's would-be seducer. But it's only when the husband's plan backfires and his wife turns the tables on him--or does she?--that the story picks up steam. Watching New as the egotistical husband react to his wife's suggestions of adultery in the manic second act is a treat. And when Resnik follows a passionate onstage encounter with her lover/husband by acknowledging the similarities between the husband's and guardsman's eyes, mouths, and, well, you know, the line gets the biggest laugh of the evening.

Scott Wentworth's book and Marion Adler's lyrics are agreeable, especially in the playful ditty "She's a Little Off," in which the wigs master (Ron Rains), wardrobe mistress (Kelly Anne Clark), and assistant stage manager (Ed Kross) cattily dismiss the wife's distracted performance. But the storytelling in "The Actor's Fantasy," in which the husband tries on various disguises before settling on the guardsman ensemble, gets downright corny, almost childish.

Craig Bohmler's score, incorporating elements of tango, waltz, bolero, and ballad (often in the same song), coos and purrs like a friendly animal. But even in the charming "My One Great Love," the music is terribly unhummable and entirely forgettable. Thankfully the design is suitably classy: Jessica Hahn's costumes are gorgeous, and Dan Ostling's set makes the most of rotating front-and-back views of a stage.

Director Peter Amster likewise aims for elegance, but too often he ends up with shtick. The actors smugly mug their way through most of the songs with the kind of effort better left to the guys and gals in The Radio City Christmas Spectacular. And Amster goes dangerously overboard with the nelly, oversexed, prancing wigs master, as ugly a gay stereotype as you're likely to see; Rains unfortunately took the bait.

New serves his character well with his sturdy voice and movie-star good looks: clean shaven from Steppenwolf's The Ballad of Little Jo, he's in high Cary Grant mode. But unfortunately his see-through performance acknowledges that he knows we know he knows the material is flimsy. Resnik's robust voice lends allure to the actress and soars in the sugary ballads as called for.

They don't write musicals like this anymore, and there's a reason why: sophisticated stuff this isn't. But if you can look past the plot's implausible deceptions--which may not be deceptions at all--and put aside concerns that the husband's jealousy reeks of delusional insecurity bordering on the pathological, you may enjoy the evening. Wispy accoutrements--a light-footed tune, becoming leads, the kind of surroundings in which Lunt and Fontanne would have thrived--make for a beguiling confection despite the often illogical and clunky story.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.

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