Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Curtains Old Fashioned Murder Mystery Musical Comedy Lavishly and Lovingly Revived at Paper Mill
Also see Bob's review of The Tallest Building in the World
John Kander and Fred Ebb stand tall among the great Broadway composer-lyricist teams. Among the youngest of the songwriters of the Golden Age of the American musical, they wrote a dozen book musicals produced on Broadway throughout the last thirty-five years of the 20th century. They also contributed revue material (most notably for Liza Minnelli) and wrote songs for musical films, among which is the Big Apple anthem "New York, New York." Their classic and Broadway musicals include Cabaret, Chicago, Zorba, and, the deserving to be better known, Kiss of the Spider Woman. Fred Ebb's lyrics were joyous, witty, clever and insightful. In 2004, Fred Ebb died at the age of 71. The prospect of never again hearing a new Fred Ebb lyric added to the sadness of the loss of the warm and ebullient Ebb.
Robert Newman, Kim Zimmer, and the cast of Curtains
His loving and sublimely talented composer partner, John Kander, was not ready to allow Fred Ebb's voice to be stilled. And Kander was in a position to do something about it. He, Ebb and their bookwriter collaborators had taken four unproduced musical to various levels of completion, and Kander was determined that they would all see the light of the musical stage. Thanks to John Kander and many others all four have been produced since Ebb's passing, two of which await their Broadway/ New York debuts. The first to reach Broadway was the traditionally styled musical comedy murder mystery Curtains whose 2007 Broadway production had a successful run of more than 500 performances. It is currently enjoying its first major metropolitan area revival in a most spiffy Paper Mill Playhouse production which concludes the company's exceptionally well attended season. While Curtains is not top drawer Kander and Ebb, it is a funny and entertaining show with a score by writers whose second-tier songs are better crafted than the best songs of too many of today's new, sometimes oddly casual, contributors to our musical stage. Furthermore, the gorgeous looking new production is a throwback to the days when it was not uncommon for Paper Mill productions to be more lavish than the Broadway originals.
Curtains is set at the Colonial Theatre in Boston in 1959, back in the days when Broadway productions could afford to play tryout engagements on the road so they could be tested in front of audiences and undergo necessary revisions before braving Broadway. It is the opening night of Robbin' Hood, a musical styled along the lines of Oklahoma!. Headlining screen star Jessica Cranshaw is acting the spoiled diva and fouling up the lavish closing number. However, as soon as the curtain falls on the final bows, Jessica collapses on the stage and dies. Boston police lieutenant and theatre buff Frank Cioffi, who is in attendance, arrives post haste, and discovers that Jessica has been murdered. He determines that a member of the company must have committed the murder and confines the entire company to the theatre (which will facilitate needed rewrites and rehearsals). The plot is rather dense and complicated with plenty of motives for the murder spread widely among the company. Rupert Holmes, the book's author, is the author of mystery plays and novels, and is skilled at touching all the bases. Much of the musical's two and a half hours (plus intermission) is consumed by musical sequences from Robbin' Hood featuring large scale, extended dance numbers. Jocular comedy is the mainstay of the dialogue, and romance and romantic conflict are fully in play. Two more murders occur, and there may be two murderers. There is a plethora of material here, which makes it necessary to present the characters and the murder mystery in the shortest, broadest manner. Curtains would benefit from considerable editing. As when one's eyes are bigger than one's stomach, and a good meal is spoiled by the consequences of overeating, Curtains is too much of a good thing.
Kim Zimmer, best known for a successful career in soaps, is sharp as a tack in the role of Carmen Bernstein, the acid tongued, acerbic producer of Robbin' Hood. Zimmer gets to sing the evening's funniest, most delightful, (top drawer) Kander and Ebb song, It's a Business:
... and makes the most of it. Zimmer never misses a beat as she expertly steps into the shoes of Carmen originator Debra Monk. Her fellow soap star Robert Newman has good stage presence and makes a likeable and charming Lt. Cioffi. Newman never attempts the comic eccentricity that originator David Hyde Pierce brought to Cioffi, but it is not missed here.
Zimmer and Newman are two of almost a dozen featured performers who share the spotlight and carry the torch of this ensemble musical. The romantic triangle at the center of Curtains consists of the formerly married, but still connected, Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks, who are Robbin' Hood's songwriters, and that show's leading man Bobby Pepper. When Gloria, returning to performing, steps in to replace the murdered Jessica, she and Bobby rekindle their former romantic attachment. Kevin Kern (Aaron), Helen Anker (Georgia) and David Elder (Bobby) are personable, vocally secure, and bring conviction to these roles. Additionally, Elder displays considerable dancing chops in this extensively choreographed production. I expect that our musical theatre holds a bright future for the rugged looking David Elder (who played Bobby during Curtains' Broadway run).
Then there is Robbin' Hood's director Christopher Belling, who is corrosively wisecracking, yet avuncular in the hands of veteran Ed Dixon. Dixon fills the stage with a witty and winning gravitas. Amanda Rose is the quite lovely ingénue Niki Harris. A local girl, Niki is a relative innocent who is looking forward to her first New York break. A gentle, awkward romance develops between Niki and the courtship challenged Lt. Cioffi. Rose is particularly winning when their courtship reaches its apogee in the charmingly choreographed, delicately set, Astaire-Rogers styled "A Tough Act to Follow" during which Niki teaches Cioffi how to dance. The dance ensemble sparkle here.
Anne Horak amusingly portrays Carmen's daughter Bambi who appears to owe her Robbin' Hood role to nepotism. Horak eventually gets to impress us with a solid "Apache" dance routine in which she is partnered by David Elder. Daniel Marcus (Sidney Bernstein, Carmen's husband and co-producer), Aaron Galligan-Stierle (Daryl Grady, Boston Globe theatre critic), Rye Mullis, and Dick Decareau also make notable contributions.
There is one twice re-written Robbin' Hood song titled "In the Same Boat" which is performed in four versions (the fourth version finds the first three sung in counterpoint). The song appears to be meant to serve the purpose of illustrating the intense, haphazard manner of rewriting a musical on the road. However, it confusingly takes Robbin' Hood away from Kansas to "out at sea." Additionally, it is tired and dullish. Its elimination would contribute to lightening Curtains' overload.
There are three major dance numbers which are part of the show within the show, and provide lively, athletic, audience-pleasing choreography in the style employed by Agnes DeMille for her Oklahoma! hoedowns. Joann M. Hunter, who was Associate Choreographer for Curtains on Broadway, has her talented dancers hitting their marks strongly, smoothly, accurately and in high style.
The best songs are the aforementioned "It's a Business", and the captivating, toe-tapping Thataway, which is in service to the big show within a show dance number. It is underpinned by a jaunty repeated series of notes which convey the energizing feel of the uniquely irresistible John Kander signature vamps.
The sets by Robert Andrew Kovach are as sparklingly bright and unsullied as any could ever be. There is an eye-appealing richness to them. They appear to be more extensive than Anna Louizos' sets for the Broadway production. Whether or not that impression is accurate, Kovach's sets are as functionally effective as they are beautiful. The apt, matching costumes are by Tracy Christensen. Director Mark S. Hoebee is at the top of his form. His directorial skills have become stronger than ever over the course of his years at Paper Mill.
Curtains began its existence over twenty years ago as a concept of playwright Peter Stone, who wrote its book. Although it was workshopped, Curtains remained unproduced and unfinished at the time of the deaths of Stone (2003) and Fred Ebb (2004). Thereafter, composer John Kander joined forces with mystery writer Rupert Holmes with Holmes writing a new book and collaborating with John Kander on additional lyrics.
As with Paper Mill's lavish 2007 production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Curtains is a co-production with Houston's Theatre Under the Stars. The benefits of such collaborations will be apparent to all who attend this generous production of Curtains.
Curtains continues performances (Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 pm; Friday, Saturday 8 pm; Sunday 7 pm/ Matinees.: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 pm) through May 22, 2011, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, 3 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ 07041. Box Office: 973-376-4343; online: www.papermill.org.
Curtains book by Rupert Holmes; Music by John Kander; Lyrics by Fred Ebb; original book and concept by Peter Stone; Additional Lyrics by John Kander and Rupert Holmes; directed by Mark Hoebee