"…You think getting away with murder is hard? Try writing a Broadway musical!”
"We're a special kind of people known as show people," goes a self-congratulatory song in “Curtains,” the Fred Ebb-John Kander-Rupert Holmes backstage murder-mystery musical now playing at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
What the song doesn't say, while glorifying one of the most demanding and often most discouraged careers imaginable, is that some show people learn the secrets of a good musical faster than others. Kander and Ebb revealed that secret in “Chicago” when they advised, "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle -- razzle dazzle 'em."
Considering the excellent performances rendered by the highly proficient Alchemy Theatre Company troupers in this show— I think they got the message.
As befits a musical about a musical, “Curtains”—the talent-packed, cloak and dagger production currently in mid-run, playing through May 26th in Costa Mesa—features an assortment of witty wisecracks, energetic dance numbers (including an Agnes de Mille choreography-influenced send-up that younger patrons may not get), and upbeat anthems to this business we call show. It's a blissful, often very funny celebration of a bygone era, a theater world that has largely disappeared.
What John Kander, Fred Ebb and Rupert Holmes have actually written is a murder mystery set backstage at a fictitious, 1950’s Broadway-bound musical. The long road to Broadway for “Curtains” has been nearly as fraught as that of “Robbin’ Hood,” the show-within-the-show that keeps losing cast and crew members to untimely ends during an out-of-town run-through in Boston. Its original book writer, Peter Stone, died in 2003, and Mr. Ebb, the lyricist, died in 2004.
Rupert Holmes, the writer and composer of the Tony-winning “Mystery of Edwin Drood,” was commissioned to take over the reins then and is now credited with the script and additional lyrics for “Curtains” along with Mr. Kander. Holmes skillfully sets up a story chock full of twists, turns and red herrings. And his one-liners about the theater have the zing of a man who knows his way around a stage and the disasters that sometimes lurk there. A big key factor in the show’s success when it debuted at the Hirschfeld Theatre in 2007 was its star, David Hyde Pierce (Broadway’s “Spamalot,” “Hello Dolly!” TV’s “Frasier”), who won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.
Mr. Kander, the composer of the immortal “Cabaret” and “Chicago,” is a master of the musical vamp that insinuates its way into your memory. Several of the numbers in this anthology are simply magnificent. Some of his melodies, however, mixed in with the would-be showstoppers, are often repetitious without being especially rousing.
But it's the cast that lends distinction to the variable material...and Alchemy's group of spry actors seem to effortlessly excel in their roles.
The storyline is quite predictable: During a performance run-through for the upcoming show “Robbin’ Hood!” a fading no-talent Hollywood diva who headlines the show is murdered on its opening night, and the entire cast wants to cut their losses and close the show. Calling it a homicide, the authorities have instead quarantined the entire company in the theater until they get to the bottom of it.
Here, Paul Zellhart plays the quietly charming stage-struck sleuth, Lt. Frank Cioffi of the Boston Police Department, who falls for the show’s good-hearted ingénue, Nikki (Kumari Small). Mr. Zellhart’s admirable dancing and vocal talents are matched by those of Ms. Small perfectly, who just might distract him from his all-work life of “lunch counter mornings, coffee shop nights.” Sparks fly as Ms. Small deliciously sends up classical winsomeness.
Another front and center lead is Janet McGregor who is not only funny but lovably hateful as Carmen Bernstein, a brassy, tough-as-nails theater producer whose self-serving husband, Sidney (James Gittelson) goes missing in the first act. Carmen is all professional, but hard-hearted enough to humiliate her own daughter, Bambi (Jessica Bill), née Elaine, an aspiring actress-singer-dancer, in front of the whole cast and crew. Circumstantial perhaps?
With the atmosphere ringing with murder, clearly someone feels strongly that this show (“Robbin’ Hood!”) should go on. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s another motivation. But the culprit could be almost anyone: the show’s writers, Georgia Hendricks (Jenise Shourds) and Aaron Fox (Jake Burnett), a former couple who have parted ways romantically; the pompous British Director Belling (Michael Buss); the stage manager Jenny Harmon (Autumn Ericson), or maybe Bambi herself (she changed her name to Bambi from Elaine because in the Disney movie, hunters kill Bambi’s mother). Things are so serious that The Boston Globe’s theater critic, Daryl Grady (played by Trevor Rodman), turns reporter and shows up to do an article on the crimes.
To solve the mystery, theater buff Lt. Cioffi will need to sort out the many clues, including scheming understudies, financially motivated producers and feuding songwriting exes. So many motives, so little time, because, as you may have heard by now…the show must go on! In no time, “Curtains” starts to feel like a musical episode of “Columbo” on a sleepless night.
Like such television fare, “Curtains” features a charmingly homey detective, an improbable and convoluted plot and the mossy but glamorous archetypes you expect of an in-the-wings story: whip-cracking producer, demanding diva, effete director, suspiciously sweet understudy and the stage manager who knows too much. These elements are all presented with soporific, gentle outcomes, while peppered with a rapid-fire fusillade of jokes, hoping to hit a few of their targets. Many of those quips fall to the ever-sardonic Ms. McGregor, as Carmen, the tough, battle-scarred producer.
“Sidney, I guess the reason you’re such a lowlife is because they built you so close to the ground,” Carmen says to her husband and business partner. There is much milking here of double entendres afforded by a murder in the plot: “Normally, I’d say over my dead body, but I don’t want to give anybody ideas.” Or: “Sweetie, the only thing you could arouse is suspicion.”
Despite the music, the whodunit factor ultimately takes charge and the audience really does want to know the identity of the murderer. The resolution is fun, fair and surprising, but at its core, “Curtains” is not a detective story. It’s a declaration of love—passionate love, for the theater.
In relation to the backstage story of “a new musical of the old West,” “Curtains” includes plenty of jokey visual and aural allusions to hits like “Oklahoma!,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “42nd Street,” as well as to lesser-known curiosities like the singing version of “Destry Rides Again.”
The number,“Show People” is a bright, bouncy tribute to the men and women who entertain for a living. “The Woman’s Dead” is a funny, irreverent song sung by the company. “It’s a Business,” an anthem led by Ms. McGregor, insists that the theater is all about profit, not art. But the show’s unforgettable number is “A Tough Act to Follow,” sung and danced by Mr. Zellhart and Ms. Small, in which Lieutenant Cioffi lives his dream of being onstage and Joey Baital gets to go glamorous with his scenic design. The song is a worthy tribute to the long and rich partnership of Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb. Nothing that precedes or follows it is on the same level. Cioffi is transported. And so are we.
One of the best numbers for “Curtains” is scored in a quieter temperament. The lovely ballad, “I Miss the Music,” hits a vein with the audience in which the show’s composer, Aaron, sings of how hard it is to write without his longtime lyricist and ex-wife, Georgia. The number acquires a hushed poignancy, and Mr. Burnett, with an exquisite tenor, gives the song its full emotional due.
Michael Buss, a playwright himself and a specialist in droll poseurs with a genuine English accent, does his usual shtick with panache as the esteemed but arrogant British stage director, Christopher Belling. His character gives the script stylish refinement.
As the theater-smitten Cioffi, who winds up solving the show’s artistic problems as well as the murders, this elegantly understated comic makes captivating use of a diffident air and the instinctive, razor-edge timing he honed as an AMDA thespian.
The ensemble has great fun with exemplary singing and dancing the slightly risqué numbers that brought the house down. The whole cast deserves high marks in the supporting roles. Additional key cast members include Josh Alvarez as Bobby Pepper, Giorgio Selvaggio as Oscar Shapiro, Lori Lewis as Jessica Cranshaw/Ensemble, Jared Lindsay as Randy Dexter/Ensemble, Joey Guerra as Harv Fremont/Ensemble, and the incredible Emily Porr as Mona/Ensemble. Lauren Wood is Roberta/Ensemble, Carla Leoz Maurer is Ensemble, and Francis San Agustin plays Detective O’Farrell/Ensemble.
Other pleasures? Miguel Cardenas’ artfully savvy direction maintains a firm, funny grip on things while pushing the convoluted plot forward. That oversight is buoyed by wonderful sets from Mr. Baital, entertainingly filling their double duty for the backstage action and the Western-themed show within a show, along with Justine Senna’s pizzazzy stage-storming costumes, Brandon Philips’ brilliant lights, Wigs by Eb Bohks, flawless Musical Direction by Jessica Cosley, excellent casting and Emily Turner’s razzle-dazzle Choreography that will knock your socks off. Altogether, they create a “ Curtains” that never sags. And fueled by a great score, it also often flies.
Illustrating that is “What Kind of Man,” a vivacious tune that hilariously skewers theater critics, the sublimely goofy “Thataway!” and the self-reflective “Show People,” which emphasizes the lyrics more than the melodies, but the songs are rendered bouncy and memorable.
Season Producers are Gerard and Gail Forster, Stage Manager (the real one) is Jordan Jones, Emily Martinez provided directorial assistance to Mr. Cardenas, Props were managed by Kelsey Somerville, Audio tech is Tanner Fuimaono, and the Producer is Jeff Lowe.
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. Somewhere early in act two, it quietly builds charm, cheek and cleverness, making it register as satisfying entertainment by final curtain. 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 produced by Alchemy Theatre Company and continues through May 26th at Costa Mesa Playhouse, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sunday matinees at 2pm. Tickets may be purchased online at: https://alchemytheatrecompany.ticketleap.com/curtains/
The Show Report