Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 22, 2007
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 Scott Ellis. Choreography by Rob Ashford. Music director /vocal arrangements by David Loud. Orchestrations by William David Brohn. Set design by Anna Louizos. Costume design by William Ivey Long. Lighting design by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound design by Brian Ronan. Hair and wig design by Paul Huntley. Dance arrangements by David Chase. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Aerial effects design by Paul Rubin. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Cast: David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk; Starring Karen Ziemba, Jason Danieley, Jill Paice, and Edward Hibbert. Also Starring John Bolton, Michael X. Martin, Michael McCormick, Noah Racey, Ernie Sabella, Megan Sikora, with Ashley Amber, Nili Bassman, Kevin Bernard, Ward Billeisen, Paula Leggett Chase, Jennifer Dunne, David Eggers, J. Austin Eyer, Matt Farnsworth, Patty Goble, Mary Ann Lamb, Brittany Marcin, Jim Newman, Joe Aaron Reid, Darcie Roberts, Christopher Spaulding, Allison Spratt, Jerome Vivona.
Whether you prefer the visible or the heard-but-not-seen type, one half of this priceless pair is probably for you. First there's Lt. Frank Cioffi, the Boston police detective investigating the murder of Jessica Cranshaw during the curtain call of the new Broadway-bound Robbin' Hood!, in which she was starring. Cioffi's skills extend beyond mere law enforcement, however: As the clues, suspects, and victims start accumulating, he reveals himself as the fresh perspective Robbin' Hood! needs to survive its withering reviews and the treacherous trip to New York ahead.
It's not just Cioffi's quest to reverse the show's fortunes that makes him the year's first everyman superstar. As played by David Hyde Pierce, in what might well prove the role of his career, the satisfaction Cioffi finds in nailing both the bad guys and that troublesome scene in the second act effusively speaks to anyone who's liked a job while secretly adoring an avocation. Cioffi's evolution from stagestruck amateur to makeshift matinee idol and Hyde Pierce's gradual blooming into an irreplaceable song-and-dance man are so far the most glittering transformations of the season.
Then we have the man responsible for helping guide Cioffi and the rest of Curtains through circumstances just as trying as an out-of-town tryout: Rupert Holmes. A two-time Tony winner for his own 1985 musical whodunit, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Holmes assumed bookwriting chores after original author-conceiver Peter Stone died in 2003, and stepped in to work with composer John Kander on additional lyrics after Kander's longtime partner, Fred Ebb, died in 2004.
As a result, even though the characters are mostly familiar archetypes, they say things worth listening to. The likes of hard-knock-wife producer Carmen Bernstein (Debra Monk), lyricist-turned-reluctant-star Georgia Hendricks (Karen Ziemba), or savage English director Christopher Belling (a hilariously vituperative Edward Hibbert) spar and jab and bicker and barb in ways that believably depict these oversized personalities colliding over a crisis-riddled musical in 1959 Boston. If Holmes at times too eagerly unleashes profanity for punch lines, he's nonetheless imbued the theatre's backstage environs with a witty and palpably pulsating life.
It's when people start singing that Curtains starts flatlining. Kander and Ebb have often written of the tenuous relationship between the onstage and offstage worlds - their groundbreaking Cabaret and Chicago deal with it directly, and even their more modestly themed titles like 70, Girls, 70, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and Steel Pier pay oblique homage. But here, only in one song does the theatrical setting rise above mere scenery.
The songs in the rest of the show do not suggest Kander and Ebb, let alone Holmes, at their best, or even second-best. Songs about the theatre range from predictable ("What Kind of Man?", excoriating critics who brutalize and canonizing those who gush) to derivative ( "Show People," a too-desperate "There's No Business Like Show Business" knockoff). Ballads basically bore, like Georgia's "Thinking of Him" and "I Miss the Music" for her composer ex Aaron (Jason Danieley). Robbin' Hood!'s onstage numbers recall, if never exactly parody, Oklahoma!, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Destry Rides Again (though choreographer Rob Ashford liberally channels Michael Kidd's work on the latter two), but have no discernible distinction to call their own. Songs concerning the murder, like the departed Jessica (played with grimacing bravado by Patty Goble), lack any hint of a pulse.
Director Scott Ellis has otherwise maintained a firm, funny grip on things: With his help, as well as that of Anna Louizos's elaborate sets, William Ivey Long's razzle-dazzle costumes, Peter Kaczorowski's lights, and William David Brohn's rollicking orchestrations, Curtains never sags. But lacking the fuel of a great score, it also seldom flies.
It's only when Holmes and Cioffi are most excitedly hawking their wares that the mediocre becomes magical. It's impossible to imagine Curtains without these two men proving the powerful influence an outsider can have, even in - or perhaps especially in - the theatre. If they haven't made this show all it could have been, they've met inspiration more than halfway, and helped make Curtains, if not quite great, almost good enough.