What a treat I have just given myself. It is late in the evening of Sunday July 31 2011, and I have just come home from seeing and hearing Kander and Ebb’s “Musical comedy whodunit” Curtains – for the second time in 3 days. Imagine, if you will, Agatha Christie, Groucho Marx, Noel Coward, and Richard Rodgers all locked in a small room and told they can’t come out until they’ve written a new musical.
The show has everything – catchy tunes, witty dialog, a few murders, imaginative choreography, great lighting and staging, a surprising denouement, and a happy ending.
Like many other plays and musicals, Curtains is about an acting company and the problems they encounter while putting on a musical called ROBBIN’ HOOD – a NEW Musical Comedy of the OLD Wild West. The plot of Robbin’ Hood is irrelevant. All we know is that it has a happy ending in which a law-man from the East cleans up a western town and lives happily ever after with the Schoolmarm – and that it has lots of wonderful songs and dances. Because of this play-within-a-play aspect almost everyone on stage has 3 identifications: the real-life person, the role name in Curtains, and the role-name or function in Robbin’ Hood. These details are listed at the end of this review. Until then I’ll just use whichever seems most appropriate at the time.
And the good news is – there are 10 more performances, Thursdays through Sundays, August 4 through 15. But don’t wait. It all takes place in the intimate Lohman Theatre on the Foothill College campus with a capacity of less than 200. Next Sunday (August 7) is already sold out, the other 3 matinees are nearly so, and the other performances are at least three quarters sold. Go to foothill.edu/theatre/curtains or call the Box Office: (650) 949-7360. I plan to go again this Friday, August 5. If you come then, look me up in seat A1.
Curtains has been called, “A Valentine to the Golden Age of Broadway”. Such terms are difficult to define precisely, but the Golden Age definitely started with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma in 1943 and lasted approximately a quarter of a century until rock musicals began to take over.
John Kander and Fred Ebb were introduced to each other in 1962 and produced their first Broadway musical Flora, The Red Menace in 1965. Although not a great hit, that show had the distinction of being the debut of a promising young actress named Liza Minnelli. Their second show was a hit: Cabaret starring Liza Minnelli. All told, they had produced 11 Broadway musicals, including another hit Chicago when Ebb died in 2004.
The pair usually worked on several different shows at the same time, and there were four of them in various stages of completeness in 2004. Kander, now 77 set himself the goal of completing all four and bringing them to Broadway. Curtains was the first; it opened in 2007, ran for 15 months, and had 8 Tony nominations.
Curtains is set in Boston in 1959 and is definitely Golden Age; Robbin’ Hood is set in the Golden West of mid-19th-century – very much pre-Oklahoma. Thus, although Kander and Ebb came on the scene at the tail end (if at all) of the Golden Age, their Curtains is far closer to such classics as Man of La Mancha, Kiss Me, Kate, or The Music Man than it is to Sondheim’s Into the Woods or any of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s hit shows.
In fact, in one way it is even better than the original Golden Age shows because it is looking at them in perspective. It uses the same sort of music, plot, choreography, and dialog as in the 40’s and 50’s, but it also pokes gentle fun at them by little hints of specific Golden Age hits. For example, there is an energetic barn dance scene about “Kansas, K A N S A S,” a definite reminder of the rousing title song from Oklahoma. And as the final curtain comes down the happy couple is walking slowly toward the back of the stage where a back-lit scrim has sprouted a beautiful sunset.
In addition to being a great musical comedy, Curtains is also properly billed as a whodunnit. Sure enough, within minutes of the overture Jessica Cranshaw (Reggie Reynolds), the totally untalented “star” of Robbin’ Hood collapses on stage – murdered.
A detective shows up and declares that murder was committed on stage so the entire cast and crew are all suspects, the theater building is placed under quarantine, and no one will be allowed to enter or leave it until the mystery is solved. An interesting variation on Agatha Christie’s device of a house party on an isolated island or in a country manor during a snowstorm.
To complete the whodunnit story, the last words sung by the chorus are something like – (don’t worry, I’m not about to spoil the mystery for you) – if you tell anyone how our show ends, “it will be Curtains for you.”
The show is filled with clever numbers. Early in Act I the composer Aaron Fox (Michael Rhone), co-producer Carmen Bernstein (Tyler Risk), lyricist Georgia Hendricks (Alicia Teeter) who is separated from her husband Aaron Fox, and the show’s financial backer Oscar Shapiro (Todd Wright) read the terrible reviews and sing “What Kind of Man” which describes in sometimes unprintable lyrics what kind of low-life scum a critic is (I’d feel self-conscious except that I think of myself as a “commentator” rather than as a “critic”).
Leading man Ryan Drummond does a superlative job acting, singing, and dancing in the role of Lieutenant Detective Frank Cioffi who thinks life on stage would be much more interesting that being a detective. He breaks with tradition for musicals by ignoring the leading lady and falling in love with the ingÉnue Niki Harris (Katie Blodgett) – a love which is returned with beautifully acted naivety.
Said leading lady starts out the show as its lyricist but is co-opted into the role of Maid Marian when Jessica is murdered. For a while it’s not clear whether her primary love interest is her separated husband Aaron Fox, or Bobby Pepper (Gary Stanford, Jr.) who plays the role of Rob Hood.
My personal favorite characters in Curtains were Producer Carmen Bernstein as played by Tyler Risk and Director Christopher Belling, played by Walter M. Mayes. Carmen is, shall we say, earthy; some of her lines are unprintable but they are always sincere. Her creed is, “The Show Must Go On”, and she will do everything in her power (even murder?) to see that it does. She explains why in a wonderful Act II solo, “It’s a Business.”
As you can see, Christopher towers over every one. However, his physical height is nothing compared to his ego. That is so great that it is quite inoffensive. He doesn’t consciously flaunt it – no need to state something that is just a natural part of the Universe. And Walter does it perfectly with a delightful moderate upper-class British accent.
Kudos to Choreographer Dottie Lester-White and Director Jay Manley for their fantastic control of actions on stage. There are 21 named roles and 18 people listed as dancers and/or singers. There’s some duplication but still at times there are about 30 people on stage, all in motion – some of it quite complex – with nary a hint of collision or confusion.
Come see and hear for yourself. You‘ll be glad you did.
The Opera Nut
(Left to Right above)
Walter M. Mayes
Gary Stanford Jr.
Jordan Michele Kersten
Lt. Frank Cioffi
Belle du Jour
Lohman Theatre, at the bottom of the hill – No Stairs!
Photos by David Allen, except where noted otherwise
This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in sanfranciscosplash.com on August 3, 2011