John Kander and the late Fred Ebb are one of the great musical-comedy writing teams, counting among their frequent successes Cabaret, Woman of the Year, Chicago and Kiss of the Spider Woman, as well as the official anthem of the Big Apple, “New York, New York.”
They also wrote, with Rupert Holmes, the musical Curtains, which ran on Broadway for 511 performances, but deserved rather more. It is now revived at Millburn, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, and although without the original production’s big names, manages to be no less effective and enjoyable. Its book underwent a long gestation, with such notables as Abe Burrows and Peter Stone transitorily involved, but it was the no less distinguished Holmes who finished it up as a backstage murder mystery.
A musical called Robbin’ Hood! has just opened at Boston’s Colonial Theater in its pre-Broadway run, but has received mostly poor reviews, with its obnoxious scene-stealing star, Jessica Cranshaw, spurning and upstaging everyone, passing out at the curtain call. As it turns out, she has been killed by a poison pellet shot from out of a large bouquet handed to her by an unobserved person.
<<<L-R: Kim Zimmer, Anne Horak, and Ed Dixon.
The producers, headed by the hard-as-nails Carmen Bernstein, latching onto a single good review, propose to keep the show running; but Lt. Frank Cioffi from the Boston police, an ardent musical comedy fan, having determined that the murderer is someone from the cast or staff, keeps everyone unhappily sequestered in the theater day after day.
Robert Newman and the cast of Curtains.>>>
All sorts of intrigues and rivalries ensue, with the prime suspicion falling on several persons. There is the married writing team of Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox, having marital problems, what with Georgia seemingly carrying on with the lead dancer, Johnny Harmon. There is the star’s standby, Nikki Harris, with whom Lt. Cioffi is seriously taken; there is the ambitious understudy who calls herself Bambi Bernet, really Elaine, Carmen’s mercilessly belittled daughter; also Christopher Belling, the eminent British director, gay and wittily waspish; and several actors and technicians wishing to get out of their unlucrative-seeming contracts.
<<<Happy McPartlin and the cast of Curtains.
A couple more murders and some attempted ones take place as tension markedly intensifies. As the plot twists and turns, we have the double pleasure of witnessing both a suspenseful thriller and a satirical backstage musical, not to mention the tricksiness of a musical about a musical. The problem, if it is one, with Curtains is that it does not have some breakaway hit songs; the good thing is that each one it does have is well above mediocre. And it does have some clever ideas.
L-R: Amanda Rose, Robert Newman, and the cast of Curtains.>>>
One of these is the song “In the Same Boat,” deemed inadequate by Robbin Hood’s producers, cropping up in several amusing versions throughout the show within a show, Another is the number “He Did It,” with sequential finger-pointing made from a darkened stage, with each performer eerily lighting up his or her face with a flashlight, yielding a ghost-story effect with smart lyric and tune.
The casting, too, is resourceful. Two veterans of TV’s Guiding Light, Robert Newman and Kim Zimmer, are reunited here as Cioffi and Carmen, and take to a different genre (admittedly not for the first time) with compelling expertise and gusto. There is fine work from Amanda Rose (Niki), Helen Anker (Georgia), Kevin Kern (Aaron). Ed Dixon (Belling), Anne Horak (Bambi), Rye Muller Johnny) and everyone else.
I only wish that as Daryl Grady, the Boston Globe critic who gave the show a negative review but agrees to rereview it, were not such a sleazy figure, even if authors and director wanted him such. We critics aren’t such snooty fellows even if satirical representation repeatedly turns us into them.
But what with delightful choreography by Joann M. Hunter, scenery by Robert Andrew Kovach, costumes by Tracy Christensen—the whole thing under Mark S. Hoebee snappy direction—there is not a slow moment or false move anywhere. Curtains holds your tickled attention from start to finish, and affords a glow of satisfaction well beyond.
Despite its well-known co-composers, Mike Stoller and Artie Butler, and a cast including Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Lewis J. DStadlen, Joyce Van Patten and Chip Zien, all of whom deserve better, the musical The People in the Picture, with a trite and exploitative book by Iris Rainer Dart, about Poland’s Yiddish Theater hit by the Holocaust, amply deserves the cold reception it got.
It did, however, have in the lead the incomparable Donna Murphy, who is always a wonder, but not even she could have pulled off the wonder of making this a viable vehicle.
Curtains, Paper Mill Playhouse, Photo by Courtesy of Bruce Bonnett Photography.
John Simon has written for over 50 years on theatre, film, literature, music and fine arts for the Hudson Review, New Leader, New Criterion, National Review,New York Magazine, Opera News, Weekly Standard, Broadway.com and Bloomberg News. He reviews books for the New York Times Book Review and Washington Post. He has written profiles for Vogue, Town and Country, Departures and Connoisseur and produced 17 books of collected writings. Mr. Simon holds a PhD from Harvard University in Comparative Literature and has taught at MIT, Harvard University, Bard College and Marymount Manhattan College.
To learn more, visit the JohnSimon-Uncensored.com website.