There is something so completely charming and conspicuously disarming about the new musical “Curtains” that its flaws, and they are apparent, fall by the wayside in the light of its lively presentation and exuberant performances. If the current year were 1937 and not 2007, everything about this joke-propelled, bordering-on-the-inane musical comedy would guarantee its becoming a huge hit. Whether contemporary audiences will push this gags and guffaws-filled show into the hit category, however, remains to be seen.
“Curtains” is not exactly an unabashed throwback to the musicals of yore, but rather in a special category of it own. It is as distinct from the faux nostalgia of “The Drowsy Chaperone” as it is from the outre camp of “Hairspray.”
This is a murder-mystery musical comedy that offers no apologies for its preposterous pretensions. “Curtains” is set in 1959 within the confines of the Colonial Theater in Boston (marvelously evoked by set designer Anna Louizos) during the out-of-town tryout of a new musical. It could just as easily have been set in 1937. Neither a spoof, satire, or pastiche to a genre that mainly went out of style 60 years ago, “Curtains” is to be enjoyed solely from its uniquely skewed perspective. We unequivocally accept this delightful back-stage diversion on its own terms, and let the murders begin.
It takes a long time for the plot, as devised by Rupert Holmes (based on the original book and concept by Peter Stone), to boil (actually parboil). The score by John Kander and Fred Ebb is mostly refreshing and bright but it takes patience to wait until a really terrific song surfaces, composed by Kander (in part as an homage to his late partner). And it requires a winking eye to appreciate the deliriously corny choreography created by Rob Ashford. But mainly it is the wonderful company of performers, under the affectionate direction of Scott Ellis, that will keep you enamored of and engaged in this otherwise flimsy exercise in trivial amusement.
More important than the incredulous plot is the knowledge that this was Kander and Ebb’s final collaboration, a collaboration that produced an enviable amount of compelling and distinctive theater music (“Cabaret,” “Zorba,” and “Chicago,” to name a few). It may not rank high in the canon but when you hear the melodic and heartfelt “I Miss the Music,” as beautifully sung by the ingratiating Jason Danieley, you can’t help but think of the loss that Kander felt. Other songs aspire but do not always exceed the standard musical vocabulary in which Kander and Ebb excelled. By the end of the show when the entire company is reprising “A Tough Act to Follow,” you’ll know what that means.
Although David Hyde Pierce and Debra Monk get above the title billing, “Curtains” is an ensemble show relying to a large extent on the wonderful supporting cast to keep the show hopping even when it’s dragging. Pierce, who was most recently one of the zanies in “Spamalot,” appears to be having a swell time cavorting amiably as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a Boston police detective who not only wants to solve a growing number of back-stage murders but is not adverse to offering suggestions on how to fix up the floundering show, “Robin Hood of the Old West.” As Cioffi, Pierce affects a realistic Boston accent and demonstrates an affinity for show people. He sings and dances well enough but endears in a solo “Coffee Shop Night.” Jill Paice is beguiling as Niki Harris, the lovely-to-look-at-and-listen-to ingenue, who becomes Cioffi’s love interest and dancing partner in a delightful fantasy number.
Debra Monk falls effortlessly into the role of Carmen Bernstein, the loud, pushy, and foul-mouthed battleaxe of a producer, who fronts the show’s two obligatory and well-calculated show-stoppers, “Show People” and “It’s a Business.” Once you see Monk taking charge of her nearly mutinous company, you know that a murder or two or three isn’t going to keep her show from making its way to New York.
The show opens amusingly enough with the final scene of Robin Hood. Jessica Cranshaw (Patty Goble), the talent-challenged leading lady. is screwing up her lines and desecrating a hoot of a dance number, “Wide Open Spaces,” only to pass out during the curtain calls. Oh, dear, she’s been murdered. The show’s company is confined to the theater until the investigation is completed, insuring that everyone becomes a suspect and possibly the next target for the murderer.
Among those whose motives become more apparent with each contrived scene is Edward Hibbert, as Christopher Belling, the self-enamored grandly affected British director, whose every utterance and attitude is geared to generate a laugh. To Hibbert’s credit, he delivers his one-liners with haughty aplomb. If he hated the leading lady so does the dynamic Karen Ziemba, who plays Georgia Hendricks, the show’s lyricist, who is instantly recruited to replace Jessica. It’s a shame that Ziemba’s best moments are only in Act I giving the ho-hum western number “Thataway” a needed zip and a sexy leg up. The vivacious Ziemba has a way of brightening up every scene she is in. Her hot and cold relationship with Aaron (Danieley), her ex-husband and composing partner, thickens the plot.
Noah Racey, the ingratiating and very talented dancer (who can also sing), who had short-lived stardom in the under appreciated “Never Gonna Dance,” adds considerable vitality and personality to “Kansasland,” and “In the Same Boat 2,” two numbers that showcase him smartly. Just as the company of Robin Hood is determined that their show become a hit despite the odds, the “Curtain” company, including costume designer William Ivey Long and lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, is having a grand time getting away with murder.
— Simon Saltzman
“Curtains,” Al Hirschfeld Theater, 302 West 45th Street. $61.50 to $111.50. 212-239-6200.
#h#Coast of Utopia, Part 3#/h#
The third and final play in Tom Stoppard’s lengthy dramatic epic about the political and social upstarts in 19th century Russia begins, as did Parts I and II, with writer/thinker Alexander Herzen sitting aloft on a chair that appears adrift amongst swirling waves somewhere between earth and a dream-world. As he did in the previous two parts, Herzen, to be known eventually and famously as the father of Russian socialism, is lowered to terra firma amongst the politicized nomads and romanticized polemicists so dear to his heart and mind. Whether they have remained dear to us, those of us who had to wait weeks between the chapters, is another story. Certainly director Jack O’Brien has done a masterful job keeping the many key characters, with some actors taking on more than one character, evolving within the contours of Stoppard’s mammoth play.
Herzen, as stolidly yet perceptively portrayed by Brian F. O’Byrne, is not the most dramatically stimulating of the radical and ideologically propelled characters that Stoppard has gathered together for his wordy finale. Herzen’s final words, however, are the most compelling and significant of all the many words that are spoken by his compatriots and resonate with particular prescience: “We have to open men’s eyes and not tear them out. And if we see differently, it’s all right, we don’t have to kill the myopic in our myopia.” It was inevitable that the aging characters within this grandly conceived play would lose a good deal of their youthful vigor and ginger since they first began their rants and romances in 1833.
The action of “Salvage” begins in 1853. Herzen’s views are now considered passe by a younger, more headstrong but far from head-wise group of radicals cum “nihilists.” Despite the zeal with which he puts into the Bell, his activist publication, his sorrows and his feeling of failure feed the play. It is perhaps inevitable that we also have a sense of loss with a drama in which surrender and despair permeate where passion and purpose once energized these formidable characters and played havoc with their lives.
Perhaps it was too much to ask that the excitement generated in the first two parts would be sustained. “Salvage” is trimly and handsomely staged, but without the dazzling special effects of the previous parts. Here we are dealing not as much with revolution as with resolution and as the title infers, salvaging the pieces of various lives.
In the wake of the freeing of the serfs, Herzen is, nevertheless, estranged from his homeland and spends his time in London and later in Geneva where his children are tutored by a rigid German governess, as played with a splendidly Teutonic edge by Jennifer Ehle. This makes the third character in the trilogy that Ehle has so deftly distinguished.
Dramatic sparks don’t happen too often but certainly whenever Martha Plimpton appears as the vivacious Natasha, whose marriage to the epileptic alcoholic Ogarev (Josh Hamilton) doesn’t preclude her romantic entanglement with the increasingly melancholy Herzen. Add Ogarev’s prostitute mistress (Kellie Overbey) into the mix and you’ve got some fancy sexual convolutions
Despite a little graying at the temples, Ethan Hawke continues to generate the same impetuous impudence he did in his youth, as the eternally and instinctively rebellious Bakunin. But ultimately we are left with the wreckage of lost dreams. It is only in looking back at the entire almost overwhelming theatrical experience can we appreciate the full power and the presence of that storm that has battered The Coast of Utopia for eight-and-a-half hours.
— Simon Saltzman
“Coast of Utopia: Part III Salvage,” through Sunday, May 13, Vivian Beaumont Theater, Lincoln Center, 150 West 65th Street. Tickets to one part, $100, or to all three parts, $300. 212-239-6200.