Stage Preview: Cuccoli's return to CLO has a nice ring to it

Sunday, July 08, 2001

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When it comes to reviews, performers either devour them, save them for later or ask that they never, ever darken their dressing-room doors.

"I generally read them after the show's over," says actor Robert Cuccioli. "I don't like them to affect me one way or the other."


"Bells Are Ringing"

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. next Sunday.

Tickets: $11 to $42;





But Cuccioli had nothing to fear from critiques of last summer's "Pajama Game." The Post-Gazette was enthusiastic when the revival opened and later called it: "The CLO at its best, building a show right here in Pittsburgh, marrying its traditionally strong ensemble to two sexy, funny charismatic leads, Robert Cuccioli and Beth Leavel, and breathing visceral, giddy life into a golden oldie." It doesn't get much better than that.

The actor is again spending part of July in Pittsburgh with the Civic Light Opera. This time, he will be starring opposite Victoria Clark in "Bells Are Ringing," a musical created in the mid-1950s by Betty Comden and Adolph Green for Judy Holliday. The actress did justice to the merry material -- including music by Jule Styne -- by winning a Tony Award and later starring in the 1960 movie of the same name alongside Dean Martin, Jean Stapleton and Eddie Foy Jr.

A disappointing Broadway revival, starring Faith Prince and Mark Kudisch, closed last month.

The play revolves around a Manhattan telephone answering service (this is set in those quaint, quieter times before answering machines, voice mail, beepers and cell phones) and one particularly helpful employee named Ella Peterson.

Ella does more than just field phone calls for clients at Susanswerphone. She affects accents, she pretends she's Santa Claus, she softens her voice to a soothing level for a dental clinic, and she frets about a playboy writer. For him, she feigns an old-lady voice as she tries to provide encouragement and instill discipline. He calls her "Mom" and pictures someone far more mature. When they meet, he initially has no idea she's the gal from Susanswerphone.

The CLO production, which opens Tuesday night at the Benedum Center and concludes with next Sunday's matinee, stars Clark as Ella, Cuccioli as the writer and Ray DeMattis as a client using the business for shady dealings. Among the songs in the musical: "I Met a Girl," "Just in Time," "The Party's Over" and "Long Before I Knew You."

"I think the music's terrific," Cuccioli says. Talking about the tune "Just in Time," he says, "I think it was written for the show. That's something with a lot of these plays: A lot of people don't realize the music came from a specific show, and they just remember them as old standards."

Cuccioli, who takes a more cerebral approach to his roles than many actors, says he liked the conflict of the character, his struggle with writer's block and with having to go it alone after his writing partner splits. "He's kind of a playboy, to some extent, and I think that's part of his problem as far as procrastination and distraction, and that's one of the obstacles to overcome," along with his fondness for alcohol, even at 7 in the morning.

And "Bells Are Ringing" is not in regular rotation around the country, another plus, the dark-haired actor says. "It's not done very much. I think it's a charming story," bolstered by the characters' vulnerability and how they find unexpected love.

Cuccioli has been busy since he was last in Pittsburgh. He did a production of "Antony and Cleopatra" at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival, "The School for Scandal" at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J., and "Funny Girl" opposite Leslie Kritzer at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.

The leading man is most closely associated with his Tony-nominated portrayal of mad scientist Dr. Jekyll and his sinister alter ego, Mr. Hyde. But by the time Broadway Television Network decided to capture the show for pay-per-view (and, soon, a tape and DVD release), TV's David Hasselhoff was starring in the musical. And, no, Cuccioli didn't see it. He also didn't catch the recent "Bells" revival on Broadway.

He's not finished with the dark doctor just yet, however. He is preparing to direct the play at Westchester Broadway Theater in Elmsford, N.Y.

It will be his first time in the director's chair, and he won't be dropping the phrase, "Well, when I was on Broadway in this role" into his dialogue with the actors.

"I'm going to keep that out of it completely. I let go of all that a long time ago, so there was no problem with casting anybody or ego involved. It's going to be a totally new approach, hopefully."

Cuccioli calls the chance to direct very exciting, a "whole shift of creative gear. As an actor, you look at the whole, but for the most part, you're more concerned with what you're doing. Now it's being in the director's shoes and having to look at the entire picture and what everybody's doing -- including lights and costumes. It's putting on a whole new creative hat. It's totally stretching me. It's great."

So was the prospect of reuniting with "Pajama Game" director Richard Sabellico, who asked Cuccioli to star in "Bells." The actor liked his first experience in Pittsburgh -- and the people -- so much that he was happy to accept a return engagement. "That you can get along with people is a great prerequisite to come back."

 1997-2001 PG Publishing

Backmoving.gif (10803 bytes)