One crafty way to make a musical critic-proof is to disarm the crix by skewering them where they live. Not only does “Curtains” have a show-loving gumshoe as intent on fixing a beleaguered Boston tryout production as he is on solving the murders that are depleting its ranks, it also has an antagonistic anthem to “everyone’s enemy”: theater reviewers. But at the risk of playing to the prejudices of William Goldman, who so graciously described legit critics in this paper last week as “humorless failures,” “Curtains” isn’t funny enough. At least that’s the case for half the show, making it all the more surprising that, in the final assessment, it works.
That this determinedly old-fashioned murder-mystery musical actually comes out on top is a credit to the talented creative team involved, on- and offstage. Rarely does a show with such a meandering first act — enlivened by low-key laughs but alarmingly light on momentum — bounce back after intermission with such infectious, ingratiating spirit.
“Curtains” is one of the final collaborations of composing team John Kander and Fred Ebb, completed after the latter’s death (and that of original book writer Peter Stone) by Kander and Rupert Holmes.
Its tunes are never going to challenge those of the darker-textured “Cabaret” or “Chicago” as musical standards, and Holmes’ book is a joke-driven concoction that needs a sharper pen. Amusing when it should be uproarious, pleasantly tuneful when it should be transporting, the show diverts but never dazzles. Somewhere early in act two, however, it quietly builds charm, cheek and cleverness, making it register as satisfying entertainment by final curtain.
Much of the credit goes to an expertly chosen cast. Like last season’s superior “The Drowsy Chaperone” — with which it shares elements of musical pastiche, a show-within-the-show and an irreverent affection for hoary tuners of the past — “Curtains” relies not on conventional leads, but on a large ensemble capable of animating a bunch of thinly drawn characters.
Chief among these is David Hyde Pierce, delightfully mixing wide-eyed, kid-in-a-candy-store wonder with wry earnestness as Boston detective Frank Cioffi, whose community theater credits have given him an addiction to greasepaint. (“In ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ my Bottom was very well-received,” he boasts.) Every bit his equal is Debra Monk, deadpanning up a storm as brassy, trash-talking producer Carmen Bernstein.
Set in 1959, the show opens, appropriately, with the closing scene and curtain calls for “Robbin’ Hood of the Old West” (think “Destry Rides Again”) at Boston’s Colonial Theater, its proscenium re-created within that of the Hirschfeld by designer Anna Louizos.
The disastrous and detested leading lady (Patty Goble) flubs her lines and screws up her dances before collapsing during the bows. Blistering reviews from the Boston critics next morning coincide with news of her death by poisoning. Enter Cioffi, who sequesters cast and crew in the theater for the investigation’s duration.
While sizing up suspects, Frank becomes de facto show doctor, making subtle creative suggestions at first and later entirely overhauling numbers. His ideas are happily accepted by swishy director Christopher Belling (Edward Hibbert, all precision whip-turns and haughty attitude), who has no problem taking credit for other folks’ work.
Act one has some fun numbers — the aforementioned paean to theater critics, “What Kind of Man?”; the solemnly unsympathetic dirge, “The Woman’s Dead”; the celebratory “Show People”; and raucous “Robbin’ Hood” saloon number “Thataway!”
Running parallel to the search for the killer in a company rife with motives is the bid to salvage the show’s Broadway hopes. Former stage performer Georgia Hendricks (Karen Ziemba), the show’s lyricist, is recruited to replace the slain lead, adding further friction to her relationship with ex-husband and composing partner Aaron (Jason Danieley). There’s also a gentle courtship between Frank and peaches-and-cream ingenue Niki (Jill Paice).
While there’s plenty going on, the underpowered first act is like a congenial game of Clue, with the appealing cast forced to compensate for the wan humor of Holmes’ book. But as the conductor turns to face the audience at the top of act two and confirm the second murder, something starts clicking.
Musical high point, made irresistible by Monk’s effortless delivery, is Carmen’s cynical showstopper “It’s a Business,” in which she disses Gorky, Moliere, Beckett and O’Neill in favor of crowd-pleasing commercial froth. Also witty is “He Did It,” in which suspicion rips through the company ranks; “Kansasland,” a delirious Western riff that includes high-kicking cavalry and a luridly eroticized Indian dance from Carmen’s stardom-obstructed daughter, Bambi (Megan Sikora); and “A Tough Act to Follow” a sugary fantasy that transforms Frank and Niki into Marge and Gower Champion.
While the songs are unlikely to stand up outside the context of the show, fans doubtless will enjoy the associations of hearing so many Kander & Ebb numbers that provide a double-edged reflection on showbiz lore and the process of making musicals. The most poignant is the sweet lament for a broken collaboration, “I Miss the Music,” with lyrics, as well as music, penned by Kander after Ebb’s death.
Director Scott Ellis stages the show with a light touch and a steady balance between backstage business and rowdy “Robbin’ Hood” production numbers. He’s aided by Louizos’ imaginative, retro-styled sets and William Ivey Long’s characterful costumes. Choreographer Rob Ashford seems overly convinced that a Kander & Ebb score demands spread-eagled women but, its occasional vulgarity aside, the dancing is plenty boisterous.
It’s the cast, however, that lends distinction to the inconsistent material. It’s a treat to see dependable musical performers like Ziemba, supple in both vocal and dance duties, and golden-voiced Danieley put to good use even if their characters’ rekindling romance remains peripheral. Hibbert, Sikora and Noah Racey as the “Robbin’ Hood” leading man all have their moments.
But while he only really steps out of the ensemble to claim star status in the riotously costumed final bows, Hyde Pierce, with his polished comic timing and more than serviceable singing skills, is the most invaluable asset. Combining a doe-eyed apparent docility with a suggestion of mischief, and balancing the seriousness of his role as investigator with his giddy distraction at being thrust into showbiz, he’s clearly having a great time up there. His detective is a memorable comic creation who rescues this show from being just another self-satirizing musical spoof.