Return to 'Jekyll'

By EDWARD BUROUGHS
FOR THE JOURNAL NEWS

(Original publication: Aug. 05, 2001)

Stretch. Actors prepare by stretching. Their minds, their emotions, their voices, their bodies. During the grueling Broadway run of the musical "Jekyll and Hyde," the show's star, Robert Cuccioli, stretched every day.

Thursday, he brings a new version of that show to the Westchester Broadway Theatre in Elmsford. And he's stretching again: This time, he's the director.

" 'Jekyll and Hyde' was a blessing and a curse," says Cuccioli, who earned a Tony nomination in 1997 for best actor in a musical.

"It was a blessing in that it really threw me into the limelight. But the curse of it has been that the people who didn't know me before don't think that I can do anything else."

After spending two years with the show on Broadway, Cuccioli pursued diverse roles that expanded his range. "I've tried to do the whole gamut from goofy comedies to Shakespeare. Really stretching myself as well as stretching the mindset of people who view me in one capacity. And (directing) is stretching me in another way."

Westchester audiences discovered Cuccioli when he was cast in the title role of the Arthur Kopit-Maury Yeston musical "Phantom." This version of the "Phantom of the Opera" story enjoyed a record-breaking nine-month run in 1992 on the Elmsford stage and won Cuccioli a loyal fan base that continues to follow his every move.

Cuccioli also received critical acclaim when he starred in "City of Angels" on the Westchester Broadway stage.

He made his Broadway debut in 1993 when he took over the role of Inspector Javert in "Les Miserables," soon after which he joined the tour of "Jekyll."

His more recent roles reveal an actor of considerable range.

They've been in musicals like "Funny Girl" (Nick Arnstein), "Bells Are Ringing," "The Pajama Game," "Victor/Victoria," "The Secret Garden" and "The Threepenny Opera," and in plays like "Antony and Cleopatra" (Marc Antony), "Enter the Guardsman" and "School for Scandal."

A critic for The Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger called him "the state's MVP — most valuable performer" in recognition of his appearances on New Jersey stages including those of the Paper Mill Playhouse and Princeton's McCarter Theater.

Last April, Cuccioli tackled another performance category — cabaret — with a well-received monthlong appearance at Arci's Place in Manhattan.

"It was one of the most frightening experiences of my life," Cuccioli recalls. "To be responsible for putting a show together, to be vulnerable because it has to be coming from your life and to be the only person up there for an hour plus. But when I started getting into it after about three shows, I was really enjoying it. I enjoyed the contact. It became like a party."

"I'll do it again when I have something new to say," he adds. "Cabaret for me has to tell a story, to say something to somebody."

For now, directing seems the right challenge.

"Many actors, when they're working on a show and a director does something, you end up being a back-seat driver. More and more, I've thought, 'Why don't I put my money where my mouth is and do it myself?' "

Cuccioli discounts the difficulties of returning to a show he knows so well for his first directorial assignment.

"When I left ('Jekyll'), I really left the show. I got as much out of it as I could and I got it as much out of my system as possible."

As a director, he's taking a fresh look. He's also relying on his cast to help shape the show. "I really sat back and let these actors create it for themselves. From that I would structure what worked and what didn't. Some things came out the same and some things didn't."

Audiences who saw the show on Broadway are in for some surprises.

"There's more music in this version," Cuccioli says. "That's not necessarily my choice — it's the script that is licensed now. It's a compilation of Broadway and the tours I had done before." In addition, he says, "I've restructured a couple of scenes. I've rearranged some songs. There's probably more dancing in the show than there has been in other productions. Plus, the actors who are doing it now make it new."

In creating the original roles in "Jekyll and Hyde" he says, "the thing I had to learn was to be flexible, because everything changed every single time we did it (before the Broadway opening). Script changes, song changes, concept changes."

The show's composer, Frank Wildhorn, has been supportive of his directing role. "I've called him with a couple of my ideas and he's said, 'Go for it. It hasn't been done that way before, see what happens.' He's anxious to see the show and talk to the cast."

If "Jekyll and Hyde" was an arduous process for Cuccioli the actor, it didn't sour him on the idea of working on new material. He has been working on another new musical, "Dorian Gray," an adaptation of the Oscar Wilde novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray." (He has played Henry Lord in several workshop productions.) "Interest is very strong. I think it's a really good piece. And being in at the ground level and having input has been fun. I think it's a good story to tell."

Cuccioli didn't set out to have a career in the theater. At 23, he was a few years into his career as a financial consultant working for E.F. Hutton.

"I didn't learn (acting) in a school. I learned on the job. And because of that, I just had to go by my own instincts. That gives me a different perspective."

"But," he adds, "there are a number of us who have not gone through acting school and have had a career before and then shifted gears and became actors. The thing I regret about not going to (acting) school is that I've had to play catch-up a lot because people who have gone have learned all of the Shakespeare canon, all of Shaw, all of Chekhov. I have to read the stuff on my own in my spare time to catch up, to know what they're talking about when they talk about these things. That's a difference."

As for now, Cuccioli is reveling in his latest adventure. And he might direct again.

"I think so. I think so," he says with intensity. "I've really enjoyed working with the actors. I love that. The challenge has been to be able to say something to one of the actors and see that inspire them — to see that light go on."

In other words, to help them stretch.

Copyright 2001 The Journal News,

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