As they used to say in the old English melodramas, "It's curtains for you!" And well it should be, for running right now to the great delight of audiences young and old is John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical whodunit, "Curtains" at Walnut Street Theatre. I loved it on Broadway with David Hyde Pierce, Karen Ziemba and Debra Monk and why it didn't run longer there is the real mystery here (though it garnered eight Tony Award nominations with David Hyde Pierce winning for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical). This deliciously old fashioned style musical is written within an inch of its life. The Book and Additional Lyrics by the amazing and ever versatile Rupert Holmes just couldn't be any more clever and the whole production whirs like a little Swiss cuckoo clock - silly and charming at every turn. (A footnote: Peter Stone who originated the idea for this musical died in April 2003, leaving the book unfinished, and Holmes was hired to rewrite it. The talented Fred Ebb also passed away before the musical was completed.)
Our story starts in 1959 at the Colonial Theatre in Boston where the musical, "Robbin' Hood of the Old West", is having a pre-Broadway try out before working its way into New York. Unfortunately, the leading lady is god awful and is dragging the show down. Somebody remedies this problem by killing her during her curtain call on opening night. Enter Lt. Cioffi, a Boston gumshoe and theater aficionado. Throughout the evening charming Detective Cioffi not only solves the murder, but fixes the show, gets his girl and snags a part in the show. I don't think I'm giving anything away here - because any audience member can see all this coming a mile away -- after all it is a comedy. Of course the big surprise is who actually committed the murder or should I say murders! Now that I will not divulge, you'll just have to see the show.
But while all the clues are piling up you can listen to some wonderful songs like the gorgeous I Miss the Music, the clever It's a Business , and the nostalgic Show People. Even the songs for the silly musical "Robbin' Hood" are melodic, funny and highly entertaining.
Director/choreographer Richard Stafford has done double duty here. The ensemble dance numbers resemble flashy Las Vegas extravaganzas, just right for this musical within a musical and the pacing of this little gem is just great.
The cast all around is extremely strong. I don't know whether David Hess has any Irish blood in him or not, but if ever there was a man with a "sweet Irish tenor" voice it's him. And it's an extra added treat to hear this man sing so beautifully and make it appear so effortless. As Lt. Cioffi, our hero, Mr. Hess is perfectly charming, a little wifty, but solidly reliable when it comes to solving the crime. Though she's too young, too petite and too pretty to play the role of the hard edged co-producer, Carmen Bernstein, Denise Whelan amazingly pulls it off. If this woman doesn't get nominated for a Barrymore for her great character acting and always exceptional singing, something is rotten in old Philadelphia and it's not the cream cheese. David Elder, Mr. handsome, triple threat wows us again (as he did in the leading role in "Windy City") as Bobby Pepper. We can only wish that he had more stage time. Not since playing Frank Butler in the Prince Music Theater's production of "Annie Get Your Gun" has Jeffrey Coon seemed so relaxed and comfortable in a role onstage. As Aaron Fox, half of the divorced songwriting team for "Robbin' Hood", Mr. Coon never overplays his part but rather infuses it with a tender reality. And of course he gives a beautiful rendition of “I Miss the Music”.
Laurent Giroux is a standout as the highly affected, self-absorbed, prima donna of a director, Christopher Belling. Nothing is a throw away for this actor. He takes lines in like ammunition and spits them out like red hot bullets. What fun! As Niki Harris the ditzy ing_nue, Julie Reiber does just what she's supposed to do, be sweet and lovely. As Georgia Hendricks, it's apparent that Nancy Lemenager is a dancer who sings - for her dancing is par excellence, her acting is quite believable and when she sings in her higher register she's lovely. But there are some numbers that are too low in her register and that's when her pitch gets wonky. Perhaps a change in key would have solved the problem? (This is not an easy fix for a Musical Director who then must hire someone to redo the orchestrations for the song in question. And it needs to happen sooner than later in the rehearsal period.)
Costumes by Colleen Grady are quite flam buoyant and fun, especially the rodeo outfits and the white gowns and tuxedoes for the dream sequence in A Tough Act to Follow, another great song. The set design by Robert Andrew Kovach is just to die for - the ultra realistic brick backstage of an old theater complete with sandbags, catwalk and trap door.
Granted, this is a theater lover's show. It takes place in a theater, all the characters are actors or writers or producers and the Detective is a theater fan who stars in Community theater. Yet its appeal is universal because we love all the characters good and bad and in between and believe their motivations. Did I forget to mention that it's really, really, really funny? That's just another good reason to see what all the hubbub is about.