Seizing Another Moment

 Robert Cuccioli returns to Westchester Broadway Theatre

  by Laurie Treacy

   Actor and singer Robert Cuccioli is returning to the Westchester Broadway Theatre.

    Returning to a venue he knows well having graced its stage in the early '90s as the title character in Arthur Kopit and Maury Yeston's gothic love story, Phantom, and as the dashing Detective Stone in Cy Coleman's City of Angels.

    Phantom not only broke box office records, it remains the theatre's longest running musical.

    A new millennium has been celebrated, a new decade is well underway and with it heralds the homecoming of Cuccioli.

    "It's home," the soft-spoken performer said on a sunny weekday morning, as he chatted with the North County News.

    "They're family and they've always been good to me (at WBT). I enjoy working with them. It's great to be back and under this capacity."

    The capacity this Broadway veteran refers to is not that of performer. No, Cuccioli will not be in costume, releasing his rich, powerful and goose bump-inducing baritone upon the audience. This time Cuccioli, 43, will be playing a different role - that of a first-time director.

    A Long Island native and graduate of St. John's University with a degree in finance -Cuccioli initially started out in the world of finance where he was employed at E.F. Hutton as a consultant - before embarking upon a career on the stage, his first love.

    At 23 he performed with The Light Opera of Manhattan, appearing in many of its productions, The Red Mill and The Merry Widow among them. From then on his resume grew as he landed roles in various regional theatre productions. His credits include Jesus Christ Superstar, 1776, Oklahoma! and The Fantasticks.

    In 1987 Cuccioli had his first 'big' break - playing Lancelot in Camelot opposite Richard Harris in both the national and Canadian tours.

    Cuccioli won the Outer Critics Circle Award for his role in the Kander and Ebb revue And The World Goes Round.

    He has also starred off Broadway in The Rothschilds and in productions for the Sacramento Light Opera (The Secret Garden), Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera (The Pajama Game), the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival (Enter the Guardsman, and Antony and Cleopatra) and the Paper Mill Playhouse (Funny Girl).

     In 1993 Cuccioli made his Broadway debut in Les Miserables, as Inspector Javert.

    Besides the stage, Cuccioli has appeared on television's Sliders and Baywatch and the daytime dramas All My Children and One Life to Live. His movie credits are Woody Allen's Celebrity and an independent feature, The Stranger.

    With Cuccioli's vast array of performances and accolades, audiences at the Westchester Broadway Theatre should be in for a treat.     

     Cuccioli is making his directing debut in a show he performed on Broadway, the title characters in Jekyll & Hyde.

    The popular musical opens Thursday, August 2 and runs through November 24.

    Jekyll & Hyde was conceived for the stage by Steve Cuden and Frank Wildhorn. Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist Leslie Bricusse wrote the book and lyrics, Wildhorn composed the music.

    Based on Robert Louis Stevenson's classic gothic novella, Jekyll & Hyde tells the tale of an intelligent scientist, Dr. Jekyll, and his quest into a person's psyche, a feat he accomplishes by delving into the duality of man - the battle between good and evil - and creating a monster out of his experiments.

    That monster, Mr. Hyde, takes Jekyll on a miserable descent into hell.

    The first regional production of Jekyll & Hyde opened in Houston's Alley Theatre in the spring of 1990. The Victorian tragedy was a smash with both audiences and critics, and many of the show's songs became popular hits. One song in particular, This Is The Moment, was performed at the Winter Olympics, the Superbowl and the World Series, and sung by a contestant at a Miss America pageant.

    Over time the musical's creators tweaked the show. In 1996 Cuccioli toured the United States in a regional production of Jekyll & Hyde. He received the Joseph Jefferson award in Chicago for his portrayal before moving on to Broadway where it opened on April 28, 1997.

    Once again Cuccioli reprised the title role. He received a Drama Desk and Outer Critics award for Best Actor in a Musical and was also nominated for a prestigious Tony Award. He is also on the original cast recording CD on Atlantic Records.

    After 34 weeks of playing across the country and 900 performances on the stage of the Plymouth Theatre in New York City, Cuccioli is at the helm of another production. How did the transformation from actor and singer to director come about?

    "It kind of chose me, actually," he said.

    Cuccioli recalled expressing interest in directing some time last year and when Jekyll & Hyde closed on Broadway earlier this year, the regional rights to the show became available (the Broadway rights are not). WBT then purchased the rights.

    "Since I have a history with them (WBT) called me up and said 'we feel you know the show better than anybody else; do you want to direct it?' " he candidly explained.

    "I said sure. I jumped at the opportunity."

    The New York City resident joked that his car knows its way to the theatre.

    He conveyed a feeling of being tentative during the very first rehearsal at WBT.

    Lightheartedly, he remembered the experience. "It was the first time in the captain's chair, trying to express ideas, and these open faces are looking at you, waiting for you to say something pithy and important.

    "It took about an hour to get over that and then we got into the work, and that's where the fun is really happening."

    WBT's production of Jekyll & Hyde stars Tom Schmid, fresh from his role as Mac in the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, as the title characters.

     The role of Jekyll & Hyde, Cuccioli explained, has been double-cast with Schmid performing five shows and Will Swinton doing three shows per week.

   The director expressed great confidence in the leads. "I think they're great. I'm allowing them to find their space within themselves and make (the roles) each their own.

    "They're incredible singers and wonderful actors," he said. "I feel quite confident to hand over the reins."

    Cuccioli also expressed assurance in the other cast members. "I think my cast is full of really wonderful actors and singers and it's going to be a great experience. I'm excited."

    Rounding out the major players are Michelle Dawson as the prostitute Lucy, Kate Suber as Emma Carew, Dr. Jekyll's fiancée; and Dennis Parlato as Dr. Jekyll's attorney and confidante, John Utterson.

    Cuccioli said he knew immediately that he would work well with the actors. And though he hasn't had much time to put the production together (two weeks ago he performed in Bells Are Ringing for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera for five days), he is enjoying the work and having fun.

    "I don't have any preconceived notions about the show. I know what works and what doesn't and what it's about. I'm learning quite a lot as I go along."

    Cuccioli cited Robin Phillips (the director of the Broadway version of Jekyll & Hyde) as a major influence, as well as directors Bob Wentworth, Bonnie Monty and Richard Sembellico, all directors he has worked with in the past.

    The version of the musical opening at WBT next week is slightly dissimilar from the Broadway show. "It's just a little different in format," he explained. "It's the same show in essence - it's the same story, the same music - with more music, it's a little more sung than the Broadway show."

    One challenge Cuccioli has faced staging the show at WBT is the stage setup. Since the venue is a dinner theatre, the middle of the stage juts out, kind of in a "T" formation.

    "Basically, it's like staging something in the round. That's what makes it difficult," he said.

    "You have to be more creative as far as staging goes because there are very few set pieces that you can use because they'll get in the way of the sight line."

     How the performers are brought onto the stage and how they are positioned was at times daunting.

    Yet with Cuccioli's extensive theater credits and experience, the audience should be in store for a wonderful show.

    When asked if he had any expectations from the departing audience he pondered a moment.  

   "I would hope they leave thought-provoked, singing the music, and really impressed that something this major could be done at the Westchester and as well as it's going to be."

     Now that he has had a taste of directing, will Cuccioli sit in the captain's seat again?

    Laughing, he replied, "Ask me again after we open."


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