Monday, August 13, 2007


Last weekend, I spent part of my Sunday afternoon at the Al Hirschfeld Theater to see the new Kander and Ebb Broadway Musical called “CURTAINS” starring this year’s Tony Award Winner for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, DAVID HYDE PIERCE. Unlike "Spring Awakening," it was a big, old-fashioned show with great musical/dance numbers and some slapstick..and I loved it, even though I didn't care much for the music. Very entertaining. CURTAINS is set in 1959 in Boston at a pre-Broadway tryout of a new musical where it's literally 'curtains' for the leading lady who dies mysteriously onstage during the applause at the end of the show. The entire company are suspects and each has a motive, to be sorted out by a local detective (PIERCE), who is a fervent musical theatre fan. He allows the company to continue rehearsing while he conducts his murder investigation.

From the New York Times (Ben Brantley):

As befits a musical about a musical, “Curtains” — the talent-packed, thrill-starved production that opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater — features an assortment of upbeat anthems to this business we call show. But the number that best captures the essence of the latest (and, sad to say, one of the last) of the collaborations from the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is a low-key ballad called “Coffee Shop Nights.”

The song is performed, most engagingly, by David Hyde Pierce, who (this is the good news) steps into full-fledged Broadway stardom with his performance here. Mr. Hyde Pierce, playing Frank Cioffi, a Boston police detective investigating a murder within a doom-shadowed musical-comedy company in 1959, is describing the limited pleasures of being an unmarried cop.

“It’s a perfectly fine life,” he sings, with feeble conviction. “I’d give it” — and here he pauses, for a moment of honest self-assessment — “two cheers.” That’s more or less the feeling inspired by “Curtains.” I sincerely wish I could say otherwise.

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 tryout in Boston. Its original book writer, Peter Stone, died in 2003, and Mr. Ebb, the lyricist, died in 2004. Enter Rupert Holmes, the writer and composer of the Tony-winning “Mystery of Edwin Drood,” who is now credited with the script and (along with Mr. Kander) additional lyrics for “Curtains.”

Perhaps this switching of creative horses accounts for the enervation that seems to underlie the lavish expenditure of energy by a top-of-the line cast that includes Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley. Brightly packaged, with “Kiss Me, Kate”-style sets by Anna Louizos and costumes to match by the industrious William Ivey Long, “Curtains” lies on the stage like a promisingly gaudy string of firecrackers, waiting in vain for that vital, necessary spark to set it off.

A musical that doesn’t make sardonic reference to the history of musicals is a rarity in the age of “The Producers,” “Spamalot” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” In relating the troubled backstage back 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.”

But unlike “The Producers,” which ends its long New York run next month, “Curtains,” directed with a soft hand by Scott Ellis, fails to convey a passionate and bone-deep understanding of the shows it satirizes. (Rob Ashford’s lewd, crotch-centered choreography for the “Robbin’ Hood” sequences would have repulsed audiences of 1959.) What it really brings to mind is less vintage Broadway than vintage prime time.

As Lieutenant Cioffi lines up and quarantines the usual showbiz suspects after the production’s untalented leading lady is murdered on opening night, “Curtains” starts to feel like a theater-themed episode of “Murder She Wrote” or “Columbo,” caught in reruns 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, at most, a quarter-turn of the screw of the conventional.

There’s something soothing, even soporific, about such unaggressive predictability. But I’m assuming — and maybe I’m wrong — that you don’t go to Broadway for lullabies.

It’s not as if the creative team doesn’t try hard to perk things up. The script fires out a tireless fusillade of jokes, in the apparent hope that a few of them are bound to hit their targets. Many fall to the ever-professional Ms. Monk, as Carmen Bernstein, a 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 (Ernie Sabella). And there is much milking of the 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.”

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