Curtains by Rupert Holmes, based on an original book and concept by Peter Stone, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, Rupert Holmes and John Kander. Directed by Scott Ellis
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
The perfect title for a show is something of a crapshoot. The authors know where they want to place their emphasis, focus the audienceís attention. They sometimes create the show and then find the title; sometimes it goes the other way. With the new Kander and Ebb musical, Curtains, it really doesnít matter how the title came into being because it is the perfect title.
For one thing, itís the final show by the songwriting team that created Cabaret, Chicago and a host of other excellent theater works. Fred Ebb died before the project could be completed. So did book writer Peter Stone. Two deaths, drawing final curtains on stellar careers. Additionally, this is a murder mystery musical for which a title like Curtains is absolutely appropriate. Finally, itís a backstage musical and nothing signals the beginning of a backstage story as much as the final curtain on the show being presented within the show weíre seeing. This show couldnít really have been called anything else.
Starring David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk, Curtains is the story of one manís obsession with the musical theater and his sudden opportunity to help create the great American musical. Pierce is police lieutenant Frank Cioffi, one of Bostonís finest. Monk is Carmen Bernstein, producer of the show doing its out-of-town tryout at the Colonial Theater in Boston in 1959. The show, "Robbin Hood of the Old West" is in deep trouble. The leading lady canít remember her lines, her blocking or her dance routines. At the final curtain she is murdered. The producerís husband, who has blackmailed most of the company into appearing in, or working on, the show for minimum salary decides to close the fiasco and send the actors home. But Cioffi sees things differently. Assigned to the case, he confines them all to the theater until the murder has been solved and the playís difficulties remedied. In a nutshell, thatís the plot. Of course, thereís much more to it and the truth of the matter is that the characters surrounding the show are much better than the show they are creating.
Kanderís music is the principal star of the evening. Whether he is writing parodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein in a tune like "Kansasland" or a hysterically funny Warner Brothers musical sequence such as "He Did It" he is at the top of his game. His own ballads, beautiful as ever, recall the early days of his career with shows like "The Happy Time" and "70, Girls, 70." It will be hard for anyone else this season to create more beautiful melodies than Kander has created in "I Miss the Music" and "Thinking of Him." It will also be hard for anyone to find better performers to sing them than Karen Ziemba and Jason Daniely. They play the authors of "Robbin Hood...", formerly a married pair who have lost touch with one anotherís special place in their conjoined lives.
Edward Hibbert, fresh from last yearís big surprise hit "The Drowsy Chaperone" plays the stage director and Jill Paice rounds out the principals as the young ingenue who messes up every conceivable clue to the murders while singing and dancing divinely. Keep on eye out for Ernie Sabella who stops the show in his own brief turn and enjoy Patty Gobleís nonsensical turn for as long as you can.
Monk leads the hilarity with expert timing and musical talent that is simply sensational. She has two songs, both paeans to the theater with a backslap, one addressing the role of critics called "What Kind of Man" and the other a sort of anti-No Business Like Show Business, called simply "Itís a Business." In between them she really gets the image across with a production number that stops the show cold about "Show People." Despite the comedy of the other two songs, this new anthem is probably the piece that will open and close this yearís Tony Awards ceremony. If it doesnít thereís something wrong somewhere.
Considering the deaths and the death-defying stunts on stage, the show is a comedy that keeps you laughing with its unexpected, quirky turns. Holmesí book delights. Ellisí direction is so secure and perfectly in period that when the show dances to Rob Ashfordís often silly and homage-laden imagery (Cabaret is evoked at one point) it is a seamless transition. Kudos in the dance department to Megan Sikora as Bambi and the entire collective of dancers in this show.
Pierce is amazing. He handles everything on stage with a sly brilliance, keeping his Boston accent prominent in dialogue and song. He has the constantly perplexed expression of a man caught in his own bedazzlement. Hit him with a spotlight and he sings; widen it and he dances. His characterís knack for changing the subject in the middle of a sentence continuously catches the audience off-guard and keeps everyone guessing about his thoughts and his processes.
The show runs 2 hours and 35 minutes and they really do fly by too quickly. This should be the runaway hit of the New York season. If for some reason it isnít, get Cioffi in to solve that mystery. That should do it.
◊ 03/23/2007 ◊
The play is at the Al Hirshfeld Theater (formerly the Martin Beck) on West 45th Street.