The overture to Curtains, the final show created by the team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (who also wrote Cabaret and Chicago among other great musicals) announces that the Golden Age of Broadway hasn't ended. It’s bold and brassy and full of melodies that make you feel like it’s 1959 or thereabouts.
Curtains, which actually debuted on Broadway in 2007, is getting its regional premiere by Cincinnati Music Theatre (CMT), one of our city’s best community theaters, predictable in its high quality with regular productions at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson-Kaplan Theatre.
The show is indeed set in 1959 in Boston, where a new musical, Robbin’ Hood, is having its out-of-town tryout. It’s a cheesy tale set in the Wild West with a masked hero, an innocent ingénue, a dashing hero and all the stereotyped characters you might imagine. The problem is that the leading lady is simply ghastly — a problem solved shortly after Curtains’ opening number when it’s literally “curtains” for her.
The actress dies — the producer quips, “She’ll never be better” — and the company finds itself taken over by a stage-struck homicide detective who keeps them all locked up in the theater. The cast members have little choice but to keep rehearsing the ill-fated show while he sorts things out and strikes up a little romance with the show’s ingénue.
Curtains is a throwback to the days when shows spent time outside of New York working out their kinks before landing on Broadway. That means it’s full of humorous clichés about the theater, wisecracking characters and wacky backstage situations. There’s a songwriting team, once married, who are obviously still in love; an officious female producer and her minimally talented daughter; and an ostentatious director trying to make a masterpiece out of hopeless material. Oh, and a cynical critic who has them all trembling in fear. (I paid close attention to the very funny song about critics, “What Kind of Man” — with lines like, “Who could be mean enough/ Base and obscene enough/ To take a job like that?”)
Holding all this tomfoolery together is Lt. Frank Cioffi, a police investigator whose heart is really that of a director and a hoofer (he imagines himself as dancer-choreographer Gower Champion in “A Tough Act to Follow”). He has more ideas about fixing Robbin’ Hood than he does about solving the initial murder, the two that follow and several others that are attempted. His golly-gee-whiz enthusiasm for making sure the show goes on is handled in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek manner by veteran community theater actor Wayne Wright (pictured above).
He’s surrounded by a cast of able performers, including Ian Dahlman and Christina Reinerman as the split-up but still in love composer and lyricist, Brian Anderson as the song-and-dance man who’s starring in the show within the show, Katie Heinrich as the ingénue with a secret, Bud Walters as the arrogant director, Marcie Brooks as the coarse producer and Susan Williams as her spacey daughter Bambi.
They’re part of a large cast, an ensemble of nearly 30 performers that most theaters today couldn't afford. But as a community theater (which means it’s all volunteers), CMT can pull this off. Director Skip Fenker knows how to get the most out of his performers, and choreographer Susan Jung keep all the plates spinning. The production’s painted drops and clever set elements (Dave Zlatic) and costumes (Elaine Michael) are as good as any I’ve seen onstage at the Jarson-Kaplan. There’s nothing amateur about Curtains — it’s a polished production from start to finish.
The show has a happy ending, of course, with curtain calls for both Robbin’ Hood and Curtains, but you’ll still be laughing all the way home. This is a very entertaining show.
CURTAINS continues through May 15 at the Aronoff Center's Jarson-Kaplan Theatre. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.