Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
And the Curtain Rises
This work is the third funded through Signature's American Musical Voices Project, following Giant in 2009 and Sycamore Trees in 2010. Composer Joseph Thalken and lyricist Mark Campbell have created a charming hybrid score that soars in a post-Sondheim idiom during the plot scenes while borrowing 19th-century forms for the musical within the musical.
The event recounted in And the Curtain Rises has faded into theatrical legend. In 1866, as New York producer William Wheatley (Nick Dalton) prepares a badly written melodrama for his theater, Niblo's Garden, a company of French ballerinas finds itself homeless when its theater, the Academy of Music, goes up in flames. Wheatley, in a flash of genius or madness, decides to incorporate the dancers into the melodrama and add some elaborate scenic effects; the resulting work, The Black Crook, becomes an instant sensation despite the fact that the performance lasts more than five hours.
Michael Slade's book uses the historical event as a springboard for his own ideas, noting that no two people involved with The Black Crook could agree on the details in later years. In this version, playwright Charles Barras (Sean Thompson) fought beside Wheatley in the Union Army and wrote the play as a well-intentioned, if inept, tribute to the brave soldiers they knew. Aging ingénue Millicent Cavendish (Rebecca Watson) wants a financial success; comic married couple C.H. Morton (Kevin Carolan) and Rose Morton (Jennifer Smith) are constantly squabbling; and stentorian Jeremiah Burnett (Erick Devine) laments his downfall from Shakespearean actor to melodrama villain. And that's before the ballerinas arrive, headed by imperious Mme. Grimaud (Alma Cuervo) and accompanied by composer-pianist Roman Korda (Brian Sutherland).
Hanggi's direction captures the breathless sense of taking a chance, doing something new simply because it is new. So the audience is left staring at an empty stage while the actors change costumes? What better time to bring on the dancers! (In this telling, Wheatley invented the theatrical convention called the "crossover,") And the dancers wear scandalously short skirts and pink tights? Well, that's enough to fill the seats right there.
Dalton gives a solid performance, but he never seems either manic or manipulative enough to wrangle the people around him. On the other hand, Cuervo and Devine are a couple of old pros who walk off with every scene in which they appear.
Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has created a clever "backstage-front stage" set, using the parameters of the time period (footlights, two-dimensional flats) but transcending them in surprising ways. He's even incorporated an orchestra pit for the 14 musicians.