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Thursday, 05 May 2011 10:24

Backstage takes center stage in musical murder mystery "Curtains"

Written by Sheila R. Schultz

The Details

Everyone has secrets. Even you! Why fess up? It’s embarrassing. Virtually every character in Curtains has a secret. This musical comedy is a murder mystery, a repository of secrets. Untangle the lies, solve the crime.

Curtains is a play-within-a-play. Time: 1959. Place: The Colonial Theatre, Boston. It’s opening night. A second-rate theatre company is performing a new musical that needs a little tweaking. Mercifully, our play commences during the final scene, in which song and dance glorify “those wide open spaces” of K-A-N-S-A-S.

Jessica Cranshaw is the show’s lead. She struts flamboyantly with an extravagant lack of talent. After curtain call, she collapses into a heap. She’s rushed to a hospital. Hours later, the troupe receives news of her demise. Nobody is boo-hoo-ing, least of all Christopher Belling (Kent Coffel), the perpetually limp-wristed director. Belling seizes the opportunity to stage an impromptu requiem “both as a tribute and an as acting exercise”. Bravo! “The Woman’s Dead” may lack reverence, but it is one heckuva production number. Its black comedy is reminiscent of the funeral sequence in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Jessica’s death is a good excuse to fold the struggling show. The actors are eager to cut their losses and grab the next train to NYC, but co-producer Carmen Bernstein (Laura Kyro) demands that the show must go on, despite its mortifying reviews and mortified leading lady. She gently reminds the cast of their contractual obligations. As Bernstein, Kyro is suitably snarky and overbearing.

Enter Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Alan Agular) of the Boston Police. A dapper gent, Cioffi is a musical theatre aficionado. He greets the company gushing, “It’s an honor to be standing on the same stage with each and every one of you!” At the same time, he suspects one of them is Jessica’s murderer. To everyone’s shock, he pronounces her death a homicide. Apparently, she was poisoned shortly before her collapse. This narrows the suspect pool to the entire company, its co-producer and creative team. None is allowed to leave the theatre until the investigation is concluded.

Still, Cioffi is in awe of the folks in show biz. These are no ordinary civilians; they’re a breed apart. (Cue spotlight) He initiates a stirring homage to “Show People”. The cast joins in. After the final chorus, it’s back to business for Cioffi. The detective is torn. Duty requires him to investigate the murder. At the same time, he is itching to offer creative assistance to the director in an attempt to spice up this homespun musical.

Agular is well cast, a man of short stature who commands authority. In Act I, his performance is charming. In Act II, he tends to rush through long speeches. I fault the script for needless verbiage. Agular struggles with a Boston accent as did David Hyde Pierce who created the role of Cioffi on Broadway.

Who is the killer? Who cares? We’re more tantalized by backstage intrigue – furtive schemes, clandestine love affairs, family feuds. Will the chorus girl get a shot at the spotlight? Will the songwriting couple rekindle their love? Will Carmen’s sleazy husband learn to keep his pants zipped? Will we ever stop groaning at Carmen’s double entendres and cheap shots?

In Curtains, the personal drama parallels the theatrical drama. Cioffi can crack the case only if he straddles both worlds. Both are illuminated, embellished through musical solos, duets and elaborate production numbers. Cioffi eliminates suspects one by one, but it’s not easy to separate the gossip from the truth. Whom can he trust? Niki Harris (Nisrine Omri), the ingénue? The lonely detective is instantly smitten with the girl whose adorable fingerprints besmirch much evidence. Niki reciprocates his affection. Or is she just …acting? Omri’s performance is sometimes saccharine, but she incarnates winsomeness.

Curtains celebrates and satirizes vintage musical theatre. The spoof mocks its subject via caricature, musical pastiche, flimsy plot and clumsy foreshadowing. This combination of stylistic devices groans under its own weight and undermines the romantic subplots which we are supposed to take seriously.

Curtains’ creative team is composed of award-winning musical theatre legends and greats, buttragic circumstances may have resulted in too many cooks. Peter Stone (1776) developed the concept and first draft of the book. John Kander and Fred Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago) developed a preliminary score. Stone died and Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) was recruited as a possible replacement. He loved the play’s premise, but wanted to reinvent the whole story. Kander and Ebb agreed. The project was revived but Ebb died before its completion. Kander and Holmes collaborated on a few new songs. The continuity in Curtains is generally adequate, but sometimes its patchwork seams unravel before our eyes.

There is genuine comedy in the play emanating from character; however, supersized portions of shtick and cheap jokes diminish the story and lengthen the play to over two hours and a half hours. The choreography (Kimberly Klick) strikes the right balance. The chorus works hard and it pays off. Their precision is admirable. So many can-can kicks in unison! Sara Rae Womack also delivers a memorable performance as Bambi, aspiring chorus girl and target of Carmen’s maternal scorn. Womack’s solo segment of the pas de deux is hysterical.

Actress Joy Powell sings beautifully as Georgia, who replaces Jessica as the lead. Georgia is also Aaron Fox’s (Jeffrey M. Wright) ex-wife and current songwriting partner. Wright displays sincerity. His singing is mostly fine, but strained at times. In his love duet, Wright can be a bit off, harmonically. The finale’s 3-part counterpoint is clean and well coordinated.

My favorite numbers is “He Did It”. Everyone is pointing fingers at everyone else as the real murderer. It is cleverly staged and meticulously executed. Kudos to director Adam Grun and the performers. Curtains is entertaining, but too long. Ultimately, Lt. Cioffi solves the murder. More important, he salvages the grand finale. Will his love affair be salvaged as well? It’s a mystery.

CURTAINS runs through runs through May 7, 2011 at the Robert G. Reim theatre in the Kirkwood Community Center at 111 South Geyer Road. Information is available at or by calling 314-821-9956.

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