nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 21, 2007
Remember those crazy, silly backstage movie musicals of the '30s and '40s? The kind of show where the composer is asked to demonstrate a new song to the chorus and he sits down at the piano and magically the full orchestra accompanies him? Where the lead dancer and his new partner have "been working on something" and the director tells them to "put it in tonight" and it's this unbelievably polished, complicated routine that stops the show? Where the powerful critic announces that he's coming to review the show tomorrow night and the entire production is rewritten and restaged in time to be a smash hit?
Well, believe it or not, everything I've just described—and plenty more—happens in the joyously exuberant and effervescent new musical comedy Curtains, which has just opened at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre and, if the musical theatre gods are still smiling down on Broadway, will remain there for a very long time to come. I haven't seen a musical like this in a very long time; indeed, in a way, I've never seen one like it, because Curtains really is the improbable miraculous musical of Arthur Freed's and Busby Berekley's imaginations. Reality and common sense are merrily cast aside; they have no power here, in the land of Technicolor fantasy that is everybody's naive and awestruck idea of that business called show.
At the center of Curtains is Lieutenant Frank Cioffi of the Boston Police Department, played with a nifty combination of pragmatism and panache by David Hyde Pierce. Cioffi loves musicals unconditionally, and so when Jessica Cranshaw, leading lady of a Broadway-bound show called "Robbin' Hood," is murdered during her opening night curtain call, he is completely and utterly in his stagestruck element. Cioffi, a wondrously dreamy Don Quixote with both feet planted solidly in his detective's wingtips, manages to solve the crime and fix the show. (I'm not telling, but he might even get the girl at the end, too.)
Because Jessica was killed onstage, pretty much everybody in the company is a suspect. They're just the colorful lot you'd expect: dapper leading man/dancer Bobby Pepper; feuding exes Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks, who are the composer and lyricist; archly egotistical director Christopher Belling; shrill-voiced blonde bombshell-wannabe Bambi Bernet; take-charge tell-it-like-it-is producer Carmen Bernstein; naive and slightly ditzy ingenue Niki Harris. They've all got their motives and, more important, they've all got plenty of reasons to sing and dance and deliver witty banter, which is finally the one and only raison d'etre of this show. Curtains is a musical murder mystery, but first and foremost it's a loving, utterly unsentimental valentine to the mythology of Broadway. It takes such joy in being its sweet, giddy, old-fashioned self that it becomes infectious.
It's also pretty much a textbook example of traditional musical comedy showmanship. It features a lively opening number, a socko song and dance called "Show People" (led by Hyde Pierce and his indomitable co-star Debra Monk, who plays Carmen), a wistful charm song sung by Cioffi called "Coffee Shop Nights" and a lovely ballad put over beautifully by Jason Danieley as composer Aaron Fox. Act One ends with an exciting production number led by Karen Ziemba (as Georgia) and Noah Racey (as Bobby); its title is "Thataway!" and it has the same kind of irresistible hook as characterizes such John Kander-Fred Ebb songs as "All that Jazz" and "New York, New York."
Act Two delivers more of the same, what with Monk's authentically show-stopping "It's a Business," the kind of number she's deserved to have all her career and only now finally gotten (and honest, she really did stop the show at the performance I saw), followed quickly by another big dance featuring Racey and newcomer Megan Sikora, followed soon thereafter by a gorgeous pixilated dream sequence starring Hyde Pierce and Jill Paice as Niki.
And while Curtains is by no means as ostentatious as an MGM musical spectacle, its producers have not stinted in a single department. Chorus boys and girls are talented and plentiful, sets by Anna Louizos are appropriate and eye-filling, and costumes by William Ivey Long are elegant and lush. William David Brohn's orchestrations make Kander's music sound grand without diluting its distinctive sound, and they're put over splendidly by a 15-member orchestra led by David Loud (who gets a delightful cameo in the show himself).
Edward Hibbert (Belling), Ernie Sabella (Sidney Bernstein, Carmen's slimy husband), and John Bolton (Daryl Grady, the nasty Boston Globe theatre critic) provide skillful comic relief. And director Scott Ellis and choreographer Rob Ashford provide a consummate, blissful staging.
It all goes to prove that the septuagenarian Kander, his new collaborator Rupert Holmes (who wrote the book, based on an original by the late Peter Stone, and additional lyrics), and his late collaborator Fred Ebb all still have/had what it takes. (If this is the last new Ebb score heard on Broadway, it will be fitting tribute indeed.)
And it's all blessedly irony- and postmodernism-free: there's some charming pastiche here and there, but there's not a moment that's less than sincere. Believing in the legend of a Broadway that never actually was may not be the most noble of endeavors, but it feels great. Let's hope Curtains stays up for a good long while.