Shaw disarms Broadway wolf

THE BALTIMORE SUN

He's playing the Chocolate Cream Soldier, but he's allergic to chocolate.

Not exactly typecasting. But that's the magic of theater.

"It's illusion. We deal in illusion," explains Robert Westenberg, who's cast in the lead role of Capt. Bluntschli -- nicknamed the Chocolate Cream Soldier -- in Center Stage's production of George Bernard Shaw's "Arms and the Man," which opens Wednesday.

"You drink liquor on stage, it's never liquor. You always find some substitute," he says. So what will substitute for the chocolate creams Westenberg is supposed to wolf down in the first act? "We'll find something," he says, without divulging any tricks of the trade.

And speaking of wolves, this handsome actor with chiseled features and an intense gaze is no stranger to the breed. Politely chatting at a table on Center Stage's mezzanine before a recent rehearsal, the former seminarian seems the complete gentleman. But this actor is best known for wearing wolf's clothing.

For two years, Westenberg played LittleRed Riding Hood's Wolf in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, "Into the Woods" -- a role that earned him a Tony nomination. It wasn't the first time he had portrayed a ferocious member of the animal kingdom. He's worn bearskins in "A Winter's Tale" and in a PBS fairy tale series called, appropriately, "Bearskin," and now he's being considered for the role of the Beast in the future Broadway musical of "Beauty and the Beast."

"I'm developing a vast repertoire of animalia," the 39-year-old actor jokes. "If I get [the role of the Beast], my niche will be secure."

"Arms and the Man" could be a welcome relief after so many fur-bearing roles. At the same time, his casting might seem unlikely at first. After all, Westenberg is an actor with an impressive musical theater background; besides "Into the Woods," his credits include major roles in the Broadway productions of "A Secret Garden" (Dr. Craven), "Les Miserables" (Javert), "Sunday in the Park with George" (George Seurat) and the 1983 revival of "Zorba" (Niko).

Mari Nelson, Westenberg's co-star in "Arms and the Man," also has musical experience -- most recently in the Broadway production of "Guys and Dolls." Both performers will get a chance to sing in the Center Stage production.

"Once I discovered I had singers, I decided to use it," says director Irene Lewis. The script contains references to Verdi's "Hernani," and she has interpolated a duet from the opera into the scene change between the second and third acts.

In a less literal sense, there is another type of music in "Arms and the Man," since Shaw is a playwright known for the musicality of his prose. "People always say that Shaw is musical, that his dialogue has rhythm and tempo and pitch, that his characters represent certain instruments," Westenberg explains, adding, "It's an interesting thought, but it's impossible to act."

The actor acknowledges that his experience with Stephen Sondheim's tongue-twisting lyrics, in particular, helps when it comes to tackling Shaw's difficult language. Neither does it hurt that he's also performed Shakespeare, as well as several other Shaw plays.

"What's difficult about it is his grammar, the length of his sentences, the emphasis on thought and ideas -- first of all, trying to make it sound like you say it every day, and second, trying to connect it with an objective," he says.

Like many of Shaw's plays, "Arms and the Man" -- a work that contrasts realism and romanticism -- has one character who serves as the primary mouthpiece for the playwright's views. In this case, it is Bluntschli, a retreating enemy soldier in the Serbo-Bulgarian war of 1885-1886 who seeks refuge in a Bulgarian household -- specifically, in the bedroom of the play's excessively romantic heroine, Raina.

Pragmatic attitude

Is Bluntschli a coward or a hero? "I don't think he's concerned with cowardice or heroism," says Westenberg, evincing the pragmatic attitude typical of his character, a soldier who carries chocolate instead of ammunition. "I think he's concerned with what he has to do to get the job done. If running away is what he has to do to fight another day, then he'll run away."

Westenberg's comments echo director Lewis' reasons for casting him as Bluntschli. "He seemed like an anti-romantic hero and a professional soldier," she says. "At first I was a little concerned that he was a little too handsome, but you go with what you think is the most talented person."

Unlike many actors who were starstruck as children, Westenberg was in the seminary when his head was turned by the theater. Born in Miami Beach and raised in California, one of seven children, he was studying for the priesthood when a fellow seminarian asked him to help build the set for a production of Robert Marasco's "Child's Play." Before he knew it, he was playing a lead role.

"I enjoyed it. It frightened me. It was scary getting up in front of all those people," he recalls.

Westenberg left the seminary after a year and a half. "It wasn't right for me," he says simply.

After graduating from Fresno State University as a theater major, he spent three years training at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre.

As to the contention that there is a similarity between the stage and the pulpit, Westenberg says, "I've often heard there is. I'm not sure. They both depend on theatrics to get their point across -- communication."

Westenberg's first major professional acting pulpit was at Washington's Arena Stage, where he was a company member from 1980 to 1982 and again from 1986 to 1987, appearing in such diverse productions as "Animal Crackers," "Measure for Measure," "Glengarry Glen Ross" and "The Crucible."

However, that diversity pales in comparison with some of the work he has done in New York. In 1982, he took over the title role in Des McAnuff's extravagant and short-lived musical, "The Death of von Richthofen as Witnessed from Earth," at the Public Theater.

"I entered flying in an airplane. I did my first number falling from an aircraft that had just been shot by the Red Baron," he recalls. "I was a corpse after that, kind of a Greek chorus."

Westenberg's next role, also at the Public, was Laertes in Joseph Papp's production of "Hamlet," starring Diane Venora in the title role. "The only thing we had to be careful with was the sword fight -- that it didn't look like I could overwhelm her. She's much smaller than I am," he says. "We had to make sure the sword fight was based on finesse rather than strength. It was a more elegant affair rather than an athletic affair."

Then the Wolf

Then, of course, there was the Wolf in "Into the Woods." "The Wolf was actually tough," he says. One of the biggest challenges was the highly physical opening number, "Hello, Little Girl." "You had a lot of stuff on," he says of the Wolf's cumbersome costume and makeup. "You come on leaping and dancing. Breath control was really difficult. You really need to know how to take a breath. You were huffing and puffing before the number was over."

The Wolf wasn't his only character in "Into the Woods." He also played Cinderella's Prince Charming. "At one point I had to change into the prince in about 20 seconds," he recalls.

Westenberg stayed with "Into the Woods" for its entire two-year Broadway run. "It was fun, but two years of anything was too long," he says. "Although I don't complain. It was a wonderful way to make a living."

It was also the way he met his wife, actress Kim Crosby, who played Cinderella. Yes, corny as it sounds, Prince Charming married Cinderella, and their happily-ever-after existence now includes their 14-month-old daughter, Emily, and another baby due in October.

Besides the new baby, Westenberg's immediate future includes concert performance of Cole Porter's "The Gay Divorce" at Carnegie Hall in June. "I get to play Fred Astaire, but I don't have to dance," he says with a combination of enthusiasm and relief.

'ARMS AND THE MAN'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., most Sundays at 7:30 p.m., matinees most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through June 6.

Tickets: $10-$35.

Call: (410) 332-0033.

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