Curtains, the new musical by composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb features one of the final scores by the legendary songwriting team that gave us Cabaret, and Chicago, and if the musical with a book by Rupert Holmes has none of the edge of those classics, the backstage murder mystery is nonetheless a lighthearted homage to the golden age of musical theater. The show directed by Scott Ellis is a non stop entertainment, but the energetic performances of the talented cast give the evening an added panache that the musical lacks.
The setting is The Colonial Theatre in Boston, 1959, during an out of town tryout for a new Broadway bound musical about the “old” West called Robin Hood! At the final critic performance of the show within the show the leading lady drops dead during the curtain call, and we soon learn she has been murdered. A stage struck Boston police detective, Lt. Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce), comes in to solve the crime and confines the entire company to the theater while he conducts his investigations. Meanwhile he finds time to romance a young ingénue (Jill Paice) and help Robin Hood’s gay director Christopher Belling (Edward Hibbert) turn the apparent flop into a hit. Part farce and part wacky whodunit Curtains is a tongue in cheek look at a troupe of egocentric theater types that is laced with many funny references to old musicals about the West. The story feels like a “Colombo” television movie of the week, where the body count keeps mounting, and the seemingly hapless detective is wiser than he appears, but despite all the tantalizing ingredients the show never really takes hold.
The background story about how the musical came to be may contain a clue as to what went wrong.
Curtains began as a concept by the original book writer Peter Stone, who collaborated with Kander and Ebb on the musical. When Mr. Ebb passed away in 2004, following Mr. Stone’s death in 2003, the Tony Award winning writer Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), was brought in to work with Mr. Kander on finishing the project. What we have may be a case of too many cooks. There is a lot going on but nothing seems to come together. You want to like the show, especially since this is Kander and Ebb’s last hurrah, but the many elements serve to distract rather than bring a focus to the unfolding tale. Without Fred Ebb and Peter Stone, the evening lacks a needed spark and you can’t help wondering what might have been.
There are plenty of funny one liners, but the characters are essentially stereotypical lampoons of theater types that also include a determined producer (Debra Monk), and a husband/wife songwriting team of composer (Jason Danieley), and lyricist (Karen Ziemba).
The top notch performances by the 31 member cast under the breezy direction of Scott Ellis are uniformly excellent. Monk, Ziemba, Danieley, Paice, and Hibbert are all outstanding turning in passionately committed work that elevates the evening, but David Hyde Pierce cements his status as a Broadway star by underplaying the stage struck Cioffi with an easy performance that is an absolute delight.
The score is bright and brassy with several spirited anthems about the theater, but they unfortunately sound similar. There are a couple of beautiful ballads, “Coffee Shop Nights” and “I Miss the Music.” The later, delivered when the show within the show’s composer sings of the difficulties of going on without his ex-wife and longtime lyricist, is poignant indeed; taking on added dimension in light of Mr. Ebb’s passing.
When all has been said and done, however, you can’t help thinking that for a murder mystery with multiple deaths, the evening is decidedly tame and light hearted.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan's Papers
Curtains opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, 302 West 45th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues on March 22, 2007. Tickets are on sale at Telecharge 212-239-6200, online at HYPERLINK "http://www.telecharge.com" www.telecharge.com or at the box office.