The concept by Peter Stone, who like Ebb also died before completing it, sounds promising enough. The incompetent diva of a Broadway-bound musical trying out at Boston's Colonial Theater in 1955 is murdered on opening night. A musical theater-loving detective is assigned to the case and, having determined that killer was present at the curtain call, sequesters the cast and crew to the theater pending the investigation. The physical confinement of all the suspects is, of course, a classic murder mystery device popularized by Agatha Christie and her many imitators. Rupert Holmes, who was brought in to finish the book and write additional lyrics with Kander, never establishes any suspense or intrigue on the murder mystery level, though, nor does he create any interesting characters or situations in the backstage story. There are a few good quips scattered around, mostly little jabs at the deceased's lack of talent or the egos of the survivors, but no sense of menace or empathy for the characters.
Director William Brown's cast gives it their all, but they're unable to make Holmes's leaden dialogue sound any better than it is. Fortunately, after we get past the first half-hour or so of exposition, the songs start coming at a faster pace and we can settle down to enjoy the Kander and Ebb score. The anthemic "Show People," a tribute to show folk in the spirit of "There's No Business like Show Business," is the kind of catchy 2/4 song Kander writes better than anyone else, and who among Kander and Ebb fans is not going to share the sentiment that show people are a special breed? That makes it easy to overlooked the fact that the song is dramatically unearned as the cast quite incredibly becomes convinced over the course of the number to stay with the show after the star's demise. The first act also features three nice ballads: "Thinking of Him," "Coffee Shop Nights" and "I Miss the Music," a number in which Aaron, the musical-within-a-musical's composer, sings of missing the process of working with his ex-wife and sometime lyricist. In Curtains, the fictional lyricist is Georgia, Aaron's former lover who has just taken over the lead of the show, but it's easy to hear the song as Kander's tribute to the late Ebb and touching to think of it that way. It's given a sensitive performance here by the always-solid James Rank. Act one closes with "Thataway," a production number given a full Kander and Ebb razzle-dazzly Fosse-esque staging by choreographer Linda Fortunato and featuring strong vocals and dance by Christine Sherrill and the ensemble.
Leading the cast in the role for which David Hyde-Pierce won a Tony, is Sean Fortunato. Very unlike David Hyde-Pierce in appearance, Fortunato looks much more like he could be an Italian-American Boston police detective, and while he doesn't attempt a Boston accent, his speech has a street-smart tone to it that gives the character credibility for the detective's authoritarian moments. He switches easily from that posture to the stage-struck fan and delivers his songs quite solidly. Chicago veteran John Reeger dryly delivers the bon mots of British director Christopher Belling, with his real-life wife Paula Scrofano doing a cameo as the soon-to-be-deceased diva. Nancy Voigts gets some good comic lines and some decent songs to belt in the Debra Monk role of producer Carmen Bernstein. The many ensemble numbers are delivered by energy and aplomb by the company.
Once one loses oneself in the solid vocal and dance performances, and gives up any expectations of the story and characters amounting to much, this Curtains turns out to be a good time. As a full-fledged musical, though, I'd bet its future may more likely be in concert presentations than in full stagings.
Curtains will be performed at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace through May 17, 2009. For reservations, call 630-530-0111, or Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212, or visit www.ticketmaster.com or www.drurylaneoakbrook.com.