If this is your first visit to this particular blog feature, I should probably point out that it's always called "Curtains" -- we thought it was a cool name for a theater review column -- but this week the play I saw is also called Curtains; someone thought it was a cool title for a musical comedy mystery set in the seamy underbelly of the professional theater community. And it is.
This is a show that was on Broadway quite recently, and David Hyde Pierce was allegedly completely adorable in it. Rusty Ferracane is, too, in Phoenix Theatre's current production. He plays a starry-eyed homicide detective named Frank Cioffi who shows up backstage after the out-of-town opening of a new musical. The leading lady who'd collapsed during curtain call is now dead, and foul play is suspected, so one of those terrific "one of you is the killer and we all have to stay here" plots is set in motion.
All the local creative team's pistons are firing like mad for this show. Robert Andrew Kovach's set is detailed and flexible, Alan Ruch conducts a tight, well-balanced orchestra, Molly Lajoie's choreography seamlessly bridges a great many stylistic requirements, Timothy Slope's costumes are nostalgic and flattering, and venerable director Michael Barnard has the whole cast performing their butts off. This is especially good news for the audience, because script-wise, there's not much to be happy about here.
Yes, the popular songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, "the creators of Cabaret and Chicago," as Curtains' promotional materials unfailingly remind us, wrote the songs. And the talented librettist/screenwriter Peter Stone conceived Curtains and wrote the original book. Sadly, Stone and lyricist Ebb both died before the show was entirely polished. Rupert Holmes teamed with Kander to finish things up. I'm not sure the problem is too many grief-stricken cooks; I think it's just a really lightweight play.
The lack of heft is evident in Robbin' Hood, the show within the show. It's supposed to be a typical 1959 tuner set in the stereotypical Old West, I guess, but it's stupid and bad, and not in a funny way. Sequestered in the theater, the company has time to rework a few numbers in response to bad reviews (Cioffi's "aha!" moments that inspire restaged medleys rather than, say, helping figure out whodunit constitute one of the script's few charming conceits), but they don't actually get better. Not even a little bit.
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There aren't any hummable showstoppers in the "real" part of Curtains, either, but there's one other star turn: Johanna Carlisle as Carmen Bernstein, the tough, realistic producer of Robbin' Hood. She brings her character to buxom, belting, ball-busting life and could easily make this a one-woman show, were the body count (the fictional one! I'm not a monster, people) to rise dramatically.
The part of Curtains toward the end that simultaneously makes the mystery more complex and then sort of solves it (is there a legitimate Aristotelian term for that?) is both draggy and disappointing. It dissipates the mild suspense of the earlier scenes while leaving a funny taste, like a small but dodgy meal.
But, as I mentioned earlier, the show is perky! Cute! Stuffed with talent! Fun to watch! So by all means enjoy it, and then please go home and write something better.
Curtains continues through Sunday, October 11, at Phoenix Theatre, 100 East McDowell Road. Tickets are $24.50-$59.50; purchase here or call 602-254-2151.