It just too easy to draw parallels between Robert Cuccioli's role in the new Off-Broadway musical Enter the Guardsman and the one he inhabited the last time he stepped on the New York stage. Even the actor himself was struck by similarities between one song in the Olivier Award-winning chamber musical and "This Is the Moment," his star turn in Jekyll & Hyde, in which he switched from one persona to another.
"When I saw this song called `True to Me,' where I'm flipping back and forth between the Actor and the Guardsman, I just had to laugh," recalls the 42-year-old former financial advisor with amusement. "I said to [co-author and director] Scott [Wentworth], `We're not gonna do this like a Jekyll and Hyde thing, are we?' " He was relieved that the answer was no.
Playing an ostentatious actor who becomes his own actress wife's secret admirer, and disguises himself as a soldier to test her loyalty, Cuccioli dons more puffy shirts and turn-of-the-century period clothes. However, while his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde was executed simply by unleashing his long hair, the shift from actor to soldier requires wig, beard and costume change.
And this dual role is distinctly different in tone from his high-voltage, breakout performance as the haunted scientist and his diabolical alter ego in Frank Wildhorn's musical, which hit Broadway three years ago and earned Cuccioli accolades, a Tony and Drama Desk nomination, and Outer Critics Circle awards and a bevy of ardent fans. Instead of a chilling gothic tale about the dark side of humankind, Enter the Guardsman is a light-hearted romantic romp, scored by composer Craig Bohmler and lyricist Marion Adler, based on Ferenc Molnar's 1910 farce, The Guardsman.
Offstage, dressed in a gold short-sleeve shirt and black jeans, Cuccioli brings as much concentration to a discussion of his latest role as he does to a part itself. Strands of gray speckle his long black hair, which is pulled back in a ponytail, and his large, dark eyes and serious demeanor soften when he smiles. His present role offers him ample opportunity to show his lighter side. Cuccioli displays a keen knack for comedy to which theatergoers who know him only from Jekyll & Hyde, the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit Phantom and as Javert in Les Miserables will be unaccustomed. But the show actually marks a return to his musical theatre roots, which were planted in comedies such as The Merry Widow and the musicals of Gilbert and Sullivan at the Light Opera of Manhattan 20 years ago, around the time he left his job at E.F Hutton to pursue acting.
"Comedy is not something that's foreign to me, but the New York community doesn't know me in that, because all I've been doing are these dark dramas," he explains. "I wanted to do it for that surprise aspect." Mark Jacoby, known for dramatic roles in Show Boat and Ragtime, also gets to exhibit his comic talent in the show.
Even in a comedic role, Cuccioli's fiery stage presence resembles that of a heavy metal rocker more than a musical theatre performer. Phrases like "passionate intensity" arose in descriptions of his Jekyll & Hyde performance, and he brings that same fierce quality to his current character. It's a trait he regards as life spilling over into art.
"It's not something that I think about or work on or even see -- it's just me," he says matter-of-factly. "I am a very passionate man. Therefore, I guess it just comes out in my acting."
After receiving its U.S. premiere last year at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, Enter the Guardsman has been restaged with almost the same cast. The only addition is leading lady Marla Schaffel, who's slated to come to Broadway this fall as the star of the Jane Eyre musical.
Although Cuccioli sees little difference between the two productions, he says the presence of Schaffel, who plays his wife, has had an impact on the final product. "I think we toned down the comedic aspect a little bit, though there's still a lot of that there, and that more focus is being played on the actual relationships."
Speaking of relationships, Cuccioli maintains fairly close ties with the members of his fan club -- many a subset of the Jekkies, the loyal Jekyll & Hyde followers who repeatedly attend the musical. Rarely does a performer develop such a following from the stage, and it's something that he admits took time getting used to. Talking about it now, there's not bewilderment, but affection, in his voice.
"That many people coming to see you all the time can be overwhelming," he remarks. "It's fun to see the reaction from other people, especially regional places that I've gone to. A good amount of my fans have come to wherever I may be, and these people at the theatres have never seen anything like it before. God bless 'em. I think it's great."
Besides attracting fans, Cuccioli also encountered some new family during his Jekyll & Hyde stint. Growing up in the Long Island, NY, suburb of Manhasset, he and his three sisters never knew their father's relatives, though some were nearby in New Jersey. After both his parents had died, when his uncommon surname began appearing in the press thanks to Jekyll & Hyde, they reasoned Cuccioli had to be related and went to the stage door to introduce themselves, the actor remembers.
Since leaving the show a year and a half ago, Cuccioli's other roles have included The Secret Garden at the Sacramento Light Opera, a guest appearance on the Sci-Fi Channel series "Sliders" and a New York cabaret show last month called Hero. He also has the title role in The Stranger, a film, he reports, that has been sold to internationally but isn't yet scheduled for release in U.S. His character, who may or may not be real, shows a woman the endless possibilities in life.
Cuccioli says he wouldn't rule out a return to Jekyll & Hyde if the offer came up, and explains that he opted to leave the long-running musical after two years on tour and another two on Broadway not out of boredom but because the role was draining him.
"Physically, mentally, emotionally, vocally, it was exhausting," he says. "I consider it probably the most difficult male role that exists in musical theatre. I certainly felt I could have explored a lot more in the role -- I was discovering new stuff all the time. But I wanted to go when I was at my peak and not on the decline."