Critic's Notebook

HOLLYWOOD — The new Kander & Ebb musical, “Curtains,” may not have received raves when the show opened Aug. 9 in Los Angeles. But they were perfect reviews nonetheless..

The L.A. notices were precisely what the show doctor ordered: positive enough to grow the tuner’s buzz all the way to an as-yet-unscheduled Broadway preem, yet qualified enough to prevent the Gotham crix from cutting the show down to size once it gets there.

Better yet, the overall West Coast consensus of “very entertaining but not great” is just the carrot any producer needs to dangle in front of a creative team capable of achieving just that — a great, new Broadway musical.

If the L.A. reviews are to be believed, John Kander and his new co-lyricist, book writer Rupert Holmes — subbing on a few songs for Fred Ebb, who died two years ago — have their work cut out for them.

Variety‘s Phil Gallo, in his generally favorable review, found many of the songs “clever,” but most L.A. reviewers expressed minor disappointment with the legendary team’s effort.

“The result isn’t one of Kander and Ebb’s most scintillating scores,” opined the Los Angeles Times’ Charles McNulty.

“A relative lack of hummable tunes,” complained Laurence Vittes of the Hollywood Reporter.

“Those who hold Ebb … to a special standard might be disappointed,” wrote the Orange County Register’s Paul Hodgins.

And while the Los Angeles Daily News’ Evan Henerson found “some sparklers” in the bunch, he conceded that “the score won’t go down as one of Kander and Ebb’s most skilled or profound.”

In other words, “Curtains” is no “Cabaret” or “Chicago.”

If indeed that’s the case, let’s go back to look at the Kander and Ebb standard represented by those two legendary tuners, now being held aloft by today’s crix as a club to beat up their new show.

Variety‘s Hobe Morrison flat-out hated “Cabaret” in 1966: “The musical numbers are generally loud, obvious, tasteless and lacking in impact of appeal.”

Nor could Kander and Ebb win with the New Yorker. In 1975, Brendan Gill pooh-poohed their “Chicago” songs with the blithe dismissal, “they tend to echo the earlier Kander and Ebb success ‘Cabaret.’ ” Which had won absolutely no love from that reviewer’s predecessor, John McCarter, who wrote, “Jack Gilford, Lotte Lenya and Joel Grey do what they can with the music, lyrics and book, all of which are thin.”

To his credit, the New York Times’ Walter Kerr liked “Cabaret,” but in comparison, he found their follow-up, “Chicago,” a big comedown: “Mr. Ebb has mysteriously reduced his couplets to a fearful plainness. Mr. Kander’s particular rhythms pick up the beat of the period but scarcely more than that.”

Critics aren’t the only ones to initially undervalue Kander and Ebb. The Academy songwriters failed to nominate their title song to Martin Scorsese’s “New York, New York” in 1979, ultimately giving the prize to Paul Jabara’s disco hit “Last Dance” from “Thank God, It’s Friday.”

The legit critics’ current assessments of Kander and Ebb’s past achievements, however, are complicated by the peculiar, if not unique, performing histories of “Cabaret” and “Chicago.”

Neither show achieved classic status at first glance. (Let’s leave that rare phenom to “The Producers,” which won a record 12 Tonys, suffered mightily as soon as it came to replacing Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, took another hit with the tepid 2005 film version, and now does merely breakeven biz on Broadway.) Although the original “Cabaret” ran nearly 1,200 perfs, it took the 1972 Bob Fosse film, starring Liza Minnelli, to really burnish its rep.

Hal Prince’s carbon-copy Broadway revival in 1987 won few converts for the stage property, but Sam Mendes’ 1998 redux did — by bumping up the bisexual subplot and totally rethinking the show as a third-rate cabaret act. It ran 2,377 perfs.

The “Chicago” saga has a similar, yet different, storyline: In 1975, the Fosse-helmed “Chicago” suffered in comparison to that season’s big hit, “A Chorus Line,” and went on to put in a merely respectable 936 perfs. From there, the show languished as one of those second-tier tuners, that is, until Walter Bobbie and Ann Reinking restaged it in a critically acclaimed 1996 concert version for Encores.

Broadway beckoned, thanks to producers Barry and Fran Weissler; an Oscar-winning film version spurred rather than depleted audience interest, and that production is now the longest-running revival in Broadway history, with more than 4,000 perfs under its dance belt and a 10th anniversary celebration being ready for November.

Memories are all the theater owns once the curtain goes down, and legit critics can be an especially myopic groupwhen it comes to Broadway productions they never saw.

Crix on both coasts complain about the current American musical drought. Yet, today’s output of successful tuners (and auds have always been more reliable on this subject than crix) tops what Broadway has seen over the past three decades. Maybe this reported drought has caused critics to bury their heads in the sand so they’re unable to see the musical theater’s biggest new trend: originnal Broadway tuners designed for, and filling very nicely, those 600-1,000-seat theaters — shows like “Avenue Q,” “Caroline, or Change,” “The Light in the Piazza,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Urinetown,” with upcoming “Grey Gardens” and “Spring Awakening” on their way. These have arrived alongside more traditional-sized tuners, such as “Curtains,” too often compared ill-favorably by critics to vintage shows that they know only through recordings — shows like “Pal Joey,” “South Pacific,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Candide,” “West Side Story” and “Follies,” which require delicate care, if not heavy rewriting, to actually work onstage.

Is “Curtains” another “Chicago” or Cabaret?” Check back in two or three decades for the definite answer. For now, see the show and enjoy.

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