January 18, 2010 in City

Review: ‘Curtains’ light on mystery but loads of musical fun

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Because “Curtains” is part backstage comedy, part musical and part murder mystery, let’s give it separate grades for each.

Backstage comedy: B-plus.

Musical: B-plus.

Murder mystery: C-minus

The third grade is barely passing, yet it’s also the least important one, since, let’s face it, nobody goes to a musical for the whodunit thrills.

The other grades are much more respectable, owing to a genial and professional-level production courtesy of director Troy Nickerson and a solid cast.

I would never recommend “Curtains,” a 2007 Broadway hit, just for its mystery plot, which is silly even by the fluffy standards of musical comedy. People keep getting murdered during rehearsals, but, hey, gang, the show must go on.

Yet I happily recommend it for its dance numbers, its performances and its old-fashioned air of lighthearted Broadway fun. The time is 1959, and the setting is the Boston tryout of a fictional Western musical called “Robbin’ Hood.” This gives songwriters John Kander and Fred Ebb the opportunity to write some delicious spoofs of “Oklahoma!”-style numbers, including one called “Kansasland.”

Since this is a musical about musicals, the writers also threw in a lot of sly references to everything from “West Side Story” to “Fiddler on the Roof” to Marge and Gower Champion. It’s all frothy good fun, performed professionally under the musical direction of Gary Laing.

You probably won’t mistake the score for the best of Kander and Ebb (“Chicago” and “Cabaret”). The second act seemed a little padded, with one extraneous number (“A Tough Act to Follow”) and a couple of false endings.

But the show makes up for it with some energetic production numbers, expertly choreographed by Nickerson and Jillian Wylie, as well as one memorable, heartfelt homage to the people who do theater, “Show People.”

As Lt. Frank Cioffi, Andrew Ware Lewis ably steps into the shoes of David Hyde Pierce, who originated the role on Broadway. This isn’t an easy role to pull off because the writers (Peter Stone and Rupert Holmes) have made the lieutenant into a strange hybrid. On one hand, he’s a hardnosed detective investigating heinous crimes. On the other, he’s an unabashed fan of musical comedy, as likely to dole out tap-dance advice as he is to shake down a suspect.

This is, of course, the basis for plenty of comedy, but it poses some difficult questions of tone for anyone playing the part. Lewis loads the character with lovable boyish enthusiasm, leavened with just a few flinty moments of tough-guy threat. That’s the right balance. He’s so much fun, we forget he’s carrying a gun until he draws on a miscreant.

His love interest, the ingénue Niki Harris, is played by the suitably funny and adorable Liz Oyama. The supporting cast is uniformly strong, especially Mary Starkey as the tough-broad producer Carmen Bernstein and Lance Edwin Babbitt as the comically cynical British director Christopher Belling.

The two strongest characters were the songwriting team of Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks, played flawlessly by Patrick McHenry-Kroetch and Maureen Kumakura. McHenry-Kroetch has proven many times on Civic stages that he is national class, and he does it again as the beleaguered but sympathetic composer. Kumakura is a newer presence, yet she proves here that she can act, sing and dance – and she has a Carol Burnett-like sparkle that can’t be taught.

Oh yes, there’s one other noteworthy performance. The aging star Jessica Cranshaw, who is murdered in the show’s opening scene, is played by the curiously named Nova Kaine. All I can say is, she had a suspiciously low voice, yet plenty of panache.


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