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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Curtains and
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Curtains
Denise Whelan, David Hess and Peter Schmitz
Photo: Mark Garvin
Curtains is a musical that's both fun and frustrating. It's a fun, breezy show that goes down easy, and you'll have a good time watching it. But it's also frustrating because, despite an outstanding pedigree, a lot of solid craftsmanship, and a pleasing production at the Walnut Street Theatre, Curtains never goes the extra mile to become something really special.

Curtains is a murder mystery musical. It's 1959, and the leading lady of a Broadway-bound musical is killed on opening night of the Boston run. Lt. Frank Cioffi is assigned to find the killer among the show's cast and crew—but he's also an amateur actor and fan of musicals, and he's determined to help turn the show into a hit.

The large cast contributes some excellent performances. There's good singing (notably from Jeffrey Coon as the show's composer and Denise Whelan as the producer), terrific dancing (especially from Broadway veterans Nancy Lemenager and David Elder), and some delightful comic turns (Laurent Giroux as a pompous director and Mindy Dougherty as a pushy chorine). And David Hess holds it all together as Cioffi, nicely walking the line between toughness and sensitivity.

But the score, by one of Broadway's greatest composing teams, Kander and Ebb, doesn't approach the level of the team's classics like Chicago and Cabaret. John Kander's melodies are suitably catchy, but few of the songs stand out. Occasionally there's a sharp, cynical Fred Ebb lyric like "It's a Business," in which the show's producer tells the hard truth about putting on a show; and there's a gorgeous, wistful ballad, "I Miss the Music." But the score is short on show-stoppers, despite a lot of obvious effort. And Rupert Holmes' book (based on a concept by Peter Stone, who, like Ebb, died before the show reached Broadway) has a lot of good jokes, but the tone is corny, and there's not one character you can really care about.

Richard Stafford's choreography is lively and inventive, but his direction is erratic; the early scenes, full of bitchy gallows humor, seem more mean than humorous in this production. It takes a while for the jokes to start landing and for the production to find its feet.

Curtains is a good show, and the Walnut has done a good job with it. But with the talent involved, it could have been extraordinary.

Curtains runs through October 24, 2010 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $10 to $95, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by visiting the box office.

Spelling Bee
Jennie Eisenhower

A few years ago, Curtains ran for fifteen months on Broadway, but another show that played on Broadway around the same time, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, ran more than twice as long. Judging solely from the fine production at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, it's not hard to see why. Spelling Bee's book (by Rachel Sheinkin) is funny, with a dash of irreverent satire, and warm, with its sympathetic portrayal of geeky junior high school students (played by adults) who define their lives by their spelling skills. William Finn's score, full of quirky rhythms and time signature changes, fits the off-kilter spirit of the piece perfectly. And the show leaves room for improvisation by its cast, not to mention by a select group of audience members who get called onstage to participate in the bee.

Director Matthew Decker's production is small-scale but doesn't feel cramped. Each of the nine actors gets a chance to shine, but a few stand out: Alex Keiper as a socially aware speller, Rachel Camp as a wallflower who blossoms in the spotlight, Steve Pacek as the most outlandish contestant, and Jennie Eisenhower as the moderator who tries a little too hard to be everybody's friend.

Theatre Horizon's Spelling Bee gets the show's manic spirit just right, and it has its heart in the right place too.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee runs through October 3, 2010, and is presented by Theatre Horizon at the Centre Theater, 208 DeKalb Street, Norristown, Pennsylvania. Ticket prices range from $24 to $27 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-283-2230, or online at www.theatrehorizon.org.


-- Tim Dunleavy



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