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  • He was in a rehearsal studio overlooking Times Square, but didn't stand out. Cucc, as some fondly refer to him, was missing something. Robert Cuccioli of Jekyll & Hyde fame - all six + strapping feet - once whipped an incredible maim of hair onstage like an acid rock guitarist in the throes of hot licks. That look wouldn't work for his current metropolitan area gig, playing Captain Von Trapp in Rodgers & Hammerstein's endearing tale The Sound of Music at Paper Mill Playhouse, Millburn, NJ [through December 14].

    Cucc says he had his Samson trim two years ago. It would have been a great marketing ploy to sell those locks on a website [all proceeds going to charity, of course] to the young women who stood outside the Plymouth Theatre stage doors screaming at the top of their lungs for their matinee idol of the moment.

    As far as playing the Captain in SOM, Cucc says he realizes audience are used to seeing older actors play the role, "but let me point out I'm a lot older than I look!" Maybe some of his post J&H experiences account for that.

    After J&H and a brief stint Off Broadway in Enter the Guardsman, Cucc became bi-coastal, attempting to take advantage of that blazing hot matinee idol fame. "I did some TV episodic work in L.A.," Cuccioli reported, "and, for the last three years, I've appeared in the regionals. I was trying to stretch myself, break the stereotypes - of what people thought of me and what I thought of myself."

    He explained those two years on the road and two years on Broadway in J&H gave him the type of cachet where regional theatres risked hiring him for things they normally wouldn't consider him for.

    "I did Shakespeare in New Jersey, straight plays in San Jose," he notes, "and musicals for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera [where for the last four summers he's worked in such shows as Pajama Game, Bells Are Ringing and Guys and Dolls.] There were more but I can't recall everything. I also directed -- Jekyll & Hyde twice and, just recently, The Glass Menagerie."

    Even though a lot of people may not have known it, he laughs, "I've been in the area." Last year, he did an Off Broadway play last year and he's no stranger at Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey [Madison] or the McCarter, where he starred in the premiere of Fiction. Paper Mill is like a second home. Captain von Trapp is Cucc's ninth starring role there. Before he hit Broadway, he had leading roles in their 1776, Jesus Christ, Superstar, Oklahoma! and Funny Girl.

    J&H gave him many learning experiences. "One thing it taught me," says Cuccioli, "was how to be a pop singer, which is something I'm more attracted to than Broadway legit. Some singers can naturally go to it because pop's what they've listened to all their lives; but, for me, it was another muscle I had to learn, another ear I had to go to. I listened to rock, but ended up doing Broadway-sound type shows."

    Another lesson was the responsibility "of carrying such an enormous show on my shoulders. I hope I did it well."

    Though derided by a majority of critics, J&H was popular with audiences. In fact, Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse's score, which was also derided, was hugely popular even before the show hit Broadway.

    "The critics didn't jump to their feet," notes Cuccioli, "but we did get some good reviews. Of that [1997] season, we were the longest running show of anything that got Tony-nominated or even won. [Cuccioli was nominated for Best Actor, and the show was nominated for Best Book, Costumes and Lighting but didn't receive nods in the Score or Musical categories.] Jekyll & Hyde was a crowd-pleaser. Audiences came back again and again. Frank was very smart. He had the music out there before the show came to town, so several of the songs were popular."

    Cucc says he doesn't read reviews until after the fact. "In the past, I found, that even with good reviews, you always find something that's not so good. And the bad ones really affect you. So, since I didn't read them, I never thought about them. I knew what we had, and certainly the audiences were responsive."

    He claims not only to have grown as an actor in J&H, "but it was the widest range of anything I've been asked to play - dramatically, emotionally, physically, vocally. Because of it, things are no longer as difficult. I still find challenges, but if I got through that I feel I can get through anything."

    Ironically, getting into theater was an accident. "I loved music and singing," says Cuccioli. " I was in the school glee club and had a rock band and played the Long Island clubs. But, in college, he majored in finance. I did theater and people would tell me I was good and if I ever considered doing it as a career. It never occurred to me."

    Instead, he took the train to Wall Street, where he became a successful trader. When the bug did bite, he started going to auditions, "where it was all trial and error." He came to J&H in 1994, late in the game, after there had been two major regional productions and a New York workshop, which starred Terrence Mann.

    After the run, Cucc had a difficult time finding things to inspire him. "That led me to the challenge of directing, which I love. After the run, I was exhausted and, frankly, I didn't want to sing anymore. For a long time, every note in my body had been expended. I began learning about myself - what I wanted, what I didn't want."

    He says, the L.A. move wasn't a good move. "No matter how successful you are here, for the most part, the TV folks don't know about it. There are some casting directors who come to town a couple of times a year and check out what's going on onstage. A couple knew who I was and what I'd done; but, the majority, no."

    Cucc was always of a New York state of mind. "It's fine out there unto itself, but there's a different mentality at work. I found it a little destructive. The energy of New York is what I love. It's part of me and I didn't want to give up on me. There was one big negative. When I came back, it meant starting over again. That was hard for someone who's been in the business twenty years!"

    Now that he is back, Cuccioli is been auditioning and he's being mentioned for the Sweet Charity revival -- whenever the producers decide to revive it.

    SOM tickets ($30-$67) are available by calling 973-376-4343 or from www.papermill.org.

    [Trivia: James Brennan, who is the director/choreographer of Paper Mill's SOM is one of Broadway's premiere hoofers. He eventually took over such roles as Bobby Child in Crazy for You, Billy Lawlor in 42nd Street and Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl, a role he recreated at Paper Mill. Brennan, a resident of Midland Park, NJ, starred as King Arthur in Paper Mill's Camelot and also directed their Crazy For You.]

    Ellis Nassour is an international media journalist, and author of Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline, which he has adapted into a musical for the stage. Visit www.patsyclinehta.com.

    He can be reached at [email protected]

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