You think getting away with murder is hard. Try writing a Broadway musical.
Both subjects are very dear to the heart of "Curtains," a thoroughly entertaining new musical that opened Thursday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. It's a blissful, often very funny celebration of a bygone era, a theater world that has largely disappeared.
"Curtains" is set very specifically In 1959 - near the end of Broadway's Golden Age. It was the year of such hit shows as "Gypsy," "The Sound of Music" and "Fiorello!" But "Robbin' Hood - a new musical of the Old West," the show-within-the show in "Curtains,” isn't one of them.
Trying out at Boston's fabled Colonial Theatre, the production is facing disastrous reviews. "If you loved 'Oklahoma!' stay there as long as 'Robbin' Hood' is running in Boston," goes one of the more positive notices.
Not only that. Its obnoxious and talentless leading lady is dead, collapsing during a curtain call and then expiring. The verdict? Murder. And everyone on and offstage Is a suspect. Cue a Beantown detective, portrayed by David Hyde Pierce, a man who's not your average gumshoe. This copper has show biz in his soul - he's an amateur thespian who, in announcing his community theater credits, says, "…in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' my Bottom was very well-received."
It's the kind of corny, slightly naughty joke, courtesy of book writer Rupert Holmes, that propels the musical's genial self-mockery. Yet behind that tweaking is an affection for musical theater, a genuine appreciation of the craft and hard work that goes into making a show work. Director Scott Ellis artfully keeps that balance intact while pushing the convoluted plot forward.
Holmes has written mysteries before - novels, plays and, his best-known theatrical effort, a musical based on Charles Dickens' "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." He skillfully sets up a story chock full of twists, turns and red herrings. And his one-liners about the theater have the zing of a man who knows his way around a stage and the disasters that sometimes lurk there.
The chipper score, buoyed by William David Brohn's period orchestrations, is by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the team behind such musicals as "Cabaret" and "Chicago." "Curtains" may not rank with those classics, but on an Initial hearing, there appears to be at least one Kander and Ebb standard here. The number is called "I Miss the Music," a hymn to that special collaboration between a composer and a lyricist.
The song, with its sweeping melody and simple yet eloquent words, takes on added poignancy these days. Ebb died in 2004, and you can feel that loss during Jason Danieley's sterling rendition of the tune. Since then, Kander and Holmes have made only slight adjustments and additions to the show's lyrics.
The suspects in the diva's death are a motley collection of theatrical folk, starting with the producer, played with brash, impeccable comic timing by the glorious Debra Monk. When Monk leads a chorus of stagehands In a snappy tribute to the money side of Broadway, "It's a Business," you know you are in good old-fashioned musical-comedy heaven.
Among other could-be murderers: the show's lyricist (Karen Ziemba) and composer (Danieley), a married twosome having personal difficulties; an ingenue (Jill Paice) who just may be a little too helpful; the acerbic director (Edward Hibbert) who turns snippiness into high art; the agile leading man (Noah Racey); the show's garment-industry backer (Michael McCormick); an ambitious chorus cutie (Megan Sikora); and, good grief, even a critic (John Bolton).
The detective not only wants to find the killer, but, what is more important, he wants to fix the show and turn it into a hit. Even murder can't stop him.
The ingratiating Pierce makes a deceptively unassuming detective. The performer lands his jokes and songs with a quiet charm, particularly a number in which he sings of his lonely life, an existence of "lunch counter mornings and coffee shop nights." The actor is nimble, too, handling Rob Ashford's adroit choreography with ease.
Ashford's dances are often witty, particularly in the cowpoke scenes, and he showcases Sikora in one amazing number of gymnastic virtuosity.
Designer Anna Louizos' settings are framed by a fake golden proscenium within the actual proscenium of the Hirschfeld. William Ivey Long's costumes range from 1950s chic to Western duds for "Robbin' Hood."
Nostalgia is the order of the day, a fondness for a time when musicals were just meant to be fun. Yet they were more than that. One of the most touching moments in the show occurs when Pierce, his face awash in a beatific smile, attempts a dance routine with a whole chorus doing the same steps behind him. Dreams don't get much better than this.
It's no wonder "Curtains" is set in 1959. The era recalls the Golden Age of Broadway musicals, when many a show had hummable tunes, laugh-out-loud-able lines and adorable characters (even when they were horrible), "Curtains” is that kind of show.
Opening last night at the Al Hirschfeld, it brings a gust of giddy good fun to Broadway. The story begins when the woefully awful star of a troubled Boston musical, "Robbin' Hood,” croaks onstage. The dandy conceit is that Lt. Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce) is a musical~theater nut as keen on fixing the New York~bound show as on solving the crime. "Curtains" is the first new show by John Kander and Fred Ebb to get to Broadway since Ebb's death in 2004. The score is lighter than "Chicago" and "Cabaret,'but the legendary team has penned a show's worth of good tunes. While the "Robbin' Hood" songs are frothy stuff, the other numbers focus on showbiz, celebrating and skewering actors, producers, even critics. Some of the sentiments have been expressed before, but director Scott Ellis stages the production with highly polished pizzazz.
William Ivey Long's delightful costumes are a mix of dressy '50s fashions and "Robbin' Hood's" Old West duds. Anna Louizos' clever sets for the show within the show add greatly to the appeal. Choreographer Rob Ashford also deserves big credit. The dancing is athletic and intricate and will knock your socks off. (No, seriously, check your shoes.) As impressive is Rupert Hohnes' zippy book, based on a story by Peter Stone, who died in 2003. Like any good whodunit, the script zigs and zags until Cioffi finally gets his man. Or is it a woman? I won't tell.
What I will say is that the cast is fantastic. Pierce oozes nice-guy cham. Debra Monk is outstanding as a pugnacious producer, and her showstopper, ‘It's a Business,’ is Krazy Glued in my brain. Jason Danieley, as a melancholy songwriter, brings a lump to the throat, and Edward Hibbert adriotly fires off acidic one-liners as a caustic director. Running 2 1/2 hours with intermission, “Curtains” could have been wrapped up a bit quicker, but you won't mind. When you hit the street, you'll still be grinning.
Any show that gleefully trashes critics in what's virtually its opening number can't be all that bad.
But "Curtains" - that title is another way to tempt fate - tries very hard to be not good.
The John Kander/Fred Ebb/Rupert Holmes musical that opened at the Hirschfeld last night has two things going for it: the effortless performances of its star, the nervy, impeccable David Hyde Pierce as a stage-struck 1959 Boston detective brought in to solve a backstage murder, and, in a smaller role, Edward Hibbert as that show's effetely acerbic director.
The backstage musical is an honorable form that found its peak in Cole Porter's "Kiss Me, Kate." Here it has been mixed up with a bewilderingly silly mystery - had there been a butler, no doubt he would have done it - of "Moose Murders" proportions.
Indeed, it's not so much a “whodunit” as a “whydoit.”
But the real mystery is what "Curtains" might have been like had the curtain risen on the musical Kander, Ebb and Peter Stone began writing. But Stone died, and so, too, did Ebb (with whom Kander wrote the megahits "Cabaret" and "Chicago"). Rupert Holmes ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") was brought aboard to provide a new book and devise additional lyrics.
It must have seemed a good idea at the time.
You can't dump all the blame on Holmes - although, for a showbiz show in which a producer (the unsinkable Debra Monk) declaims, "I put on 'The Iceman Cometh,' and no one cameth," it's hard to be kind.
And, for that matter, Kander's music doesn't find him at his best - at times, he isn't searching very hard.
One crushing difficulty is that the musical within the musical - a cowboy extravaganza called "Robbin' Hood!" - is meant to be awe- inspiringly bad, so bad that we'll find it campily hilarious.
I just found it awe-inspiringly bad. Unfortunately, it was difficult to discern just where the joke musical ended and the actual one began.
Part of the trouble was director Scott Ellis' failure to italicize sufficiently the inside comedy, but there probably wasn't much he could do.
The choreography by Rob Ashford was unnoticeable, the scenery by Anna Louizos uninterestingly ugly, while William Ivey Long unwisely saved his best and funniest costumes for the curtain calls.
Through all this farrago, Hyde Pierce moved (or, in that curtain call, "rode") with unshatterable aplomb - taking the basically comic concept of a tough plainclothes detective as a musical comedy queen, and running with it just as far, and even a bit beyond, as the material could take it.
That look of gentle, slightly pained surprise at the entire business of living, a look that served his TV alter ego so well on "Frasier," is one of the musical's very few delights.
Another is the outrageous Hibbert (also late of "Frasier"), flouncing across the stage like a majestic pouter pigeon, making the stereotypical martinet of a gay director seem like a fresh creation beribboned with spontaneity.
As the composing team, supposedly responsible for the dismal inner musical, Karen Ziemba and Jason Daniely were equally game but, unlike the other two, appeared defeated.
There was a special irony when, in one number, "I Miss the Music," the composer, after Ziemba's character temporarily deserted him, was lamenting the absence of his writing partner.
Kander must have known just how he felt.
As befits a musical about a musical, "Curtains" - the talent-packed, thrill-starved production that opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theater - features an assortment of upbeat anthems to this business we call show. But the number that best captures the essence of the latest (and, sad to say, one of the last) of the collaborations from the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb is a low-key ballad called "Coffee Shop Nights."
The song is performed, most engagingly, by David Hyde Pierce, who (this is the good news) steps into full-fledged Broadway stardom with his performance here. Mr. Hyde Pierce, playing Frank Cioffi, a Boston police detective investigating a murder within a doom-shadowed musical-comedy company in 1959, is describing the limited pleasures of being an unmarried cop.
"It's a perfectly fine life," he sings, with feeble conviction. "I'd give it" - and here he pauses, for a moment of honest self-assessment - "two cheers." That's more or less the feeling inspired by "Curtains." I sincerely wish I could say otherwise.
The long road to Broadway for "Curtains" has been nearly as fraught as that of "Robbin' Hood," the show-within-the-show that keeps losing cast and crew members to untimely ends during an out-of-town tryout in Boston. Its original book writer, Peter Stone, died in 2003, and Mr. Ebb, the lyricist, died in 2004. Enter Rupert Holmes, the writer and composer of the Tony-winning "Mystery of Edwin Drood," who is now credited with the script and (along with Mr. Kander) additional lyrics for "Curtains."
Perhaps this switching of creative horses accounts for the enervation that seems to underlie the lavish expenditure of energy by a top-of-the line cast that includes Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley. Brightly packaged, with "Kiss Me, Kate"-style sets by Anna Louizos and costumes to match by the industrious William Ivey Long, "Curtains" lies on the stage like a promisingly gaudy string of firecrackers, waiting in vain for that vital, necessary spark to set it off.
A musical that doesn't make sardonic reference to the history of musicals is a rarity in the age of "The Producers," "Spamalot" and "The Drowsy Chaperone." In relating the troubled backstage back story of "a new musical of the old West," "Curtains" includes plenty of jokey visual and aural allusions to hits like "Oklahoma!," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "42nd Street," as well as to lesser-known curiosities like the singing version of "Destry Rides Again."
But unlike "The Producers," which ends its long New York run next month, "Curtains," directed with a soft hand by Scott Ellis, fails to convey a passionate and bone-deep understanding of the shows it satirizes. (Rob Ashford's lewd, crotch-centered choreography for the "Robbin' Hood" sequences would have repulsed audiences of 1959.) What it really brings to mind is less vintage Broadway than vintage prime time.
As Lieutenant Cioffi lines up and quarantines the usual showbiz suspects after the production's untalented leading lady is murdered on opening night, "Curtains" starts to feel like a theater-themed episode of "Murder She Wrote" or "Columbo," caught in reruns on a sleepless night.
Like such television fare, "Curtains" features a charmingly homey detective, an improbable and convoluted plot and the mossy but glamorous archetypes you expect of an in-the-wings story: whip-cracking producer, demanding diva, effete director, suspiciously sweet understudy and the stage manager who knows too much.
These elements are all presented with, at most, a quarter-turn of the screw of the conventional.
There's something soothing, even soporific, about such unaggressive predictability. But I'm assuming – and maybe I'm wrong - that you don't go to Broadway for lullabies.
It's not as if the creative team doesn't try hard to perk things up. The script fires out a tireless fusillade of jokes, in the apparent hope that a few of them are bound to hit their targets. Many fall to the ever-professional Ms. Monk, as Carmen Bernstein, a tough, battle-scarred producer.
"Sidney, I guess the reason you're such a lowlife is because they built you so close to the ground," Carmen says to her husband and business paltner (Ernie Sabella). And there is much milking of the double entendres afforded by a murder in the plot: "Normally, I'd say over my dead body, but I don't want to give anybody ideas." Or: "Sweetie, the only thing you could arouse is suspicion."
Mr. Kander, the composer of the immortal "Cabaret" and "Chicago," is a master of the musical vamp that insinuates its way into your memory. But here his melodies, especially in the would-be showstoppers, are often repetitious without being rousing.
His best numbers for "Curtains" are in a quieter vein. They include a lovely ballad, "I Miss the Music," in which the show-within-the-show's composer (Mr. Danieley) sings of how hard it is to write without his longtime lyricist and ex-wife, played by Ms. Ziemba. Given the death of Mr. Ebb, the number acquires a hushed poignancy. And Mr. Danieley, who has the most exquisite tenor on Broadway, gives the song its full emotional due.
Ms. Ziemba, like Ms. Monk, is an appealing and polished veteran who never makes a technical misstep. But the original, star-defining wit that both actresses have shown on previous occasions never manifests itself here.
Edward Hibbert, a specialist in droll poseurs with affected accents, does his usual shtick with his usual panache. And Jill Paice, as the classically winsome ingenue who captures Cioffi's heart, subtly and deliciously sends up classical winsomeness.
She is well paired with Mr. Hyde Pierce, who fans the audience-wooing spark he demonstrated as the most cowardly of the knights in "Spamalot" into a steady flame. As the theater-smitten Cioffi, who winds up solving the show's artistic problems as well as the murders, this elegantly understated comic makes captivating use of a Boston accent, on the sitcom "Frasier."
He's a welcome oddity, a soft-sell star in a hard-sell world. He uses this incongruity to make Cioffi a surrogate for everyone in the audience who has fantasies of appearing in a big Broadway musical. In the second act Mr. Hyde Pierce and Ms. Paice are allowed, for one song, to turn into Fred and Ginger in an RKO dream world.
Choreographed as a dexterous blend of sendup and valentine by Mr. Ashford, the number expresses the sheer, lightheaded love of that silly and sublime form, the musical that is what "Curtains" is meant to be about. The song is called "A Tough Act to Follow," and nothing that precedes or follows it is on its level. But it is a worthy tribute to the long and rich partnership of Mr. Kander and Mr. Ebb, one of the toughest acts to follow on Broadway.
One can almost feel humanity rooting for "Curtains”, the mystery-musical and show-biz valentine that, during its six-year gestation, has been predeceased by its beloved lyricist, Fred Ebb, and its veteran writer, Peter Stone.
Why not root? Any show that cranks up the fog machine for a grand-noir entrance by David Hyde Pierce in a trenchcoat surely demands big Broadway gratitude.
A backstage musical that finally gives trouper Karen Ziemba center-stage as the (maturing but still sparky) romantic heroine? A spoof that hands Debra Monk pages of sardonic lines for the virtuosa of deadpan to spin over to their dark side? A John Kander score of jaunty old fashioned songs, including a critic-bashing number destined to be a hit at opening-night parties? And a first act Old West curtain song that attempts to rhyme "thataway" with "at-a-way," "spat away,” "hat away,” "getaway,” "flat-away,” "Piscataway,” "kiss away" and, hmm, "Paraguay"?
So we'd love to love it, this first of four unproduced musicals left orphaned by half of the master team of Kander and Ebb, which gave the world "Cabaret" and "Chicago."
Instead, "Curtains,” which opened last night at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre after a success in Los Angeles, is likable at best.
The music - if you must, the '59 Broadway homage - sounds so familiar that, even during the overture, we have to struggle not to play "Name That Tune." The book by Rupert Holmes ("The Mystery of Edwin Drood") is amusing, in low-comedy vaudevillian ways, but too long to be so flimsy. The direction of Scott Ellis ("She Loves Me") is lively but cries out for tightening and editing. Rob Ashford's choreography is indebted not just to Gower Champion (whose work is credited with having inspired the elegant dream ballet for Pierce and spunky ingenue Jill Paice), but also to Tommy Tune and to Susan Stroman.
But back to the happy news. Pierce, criminally ignored by the Tony nominators for his return to Broadway in "Spamalot," does not intend to let that happen again. He plays Lt. Frank Cioffi, assigned to solve a case of murder and blackmail during a disastrous Boston tryout. The joke is that the ace detective is also a stage-struck amateur thespian, qualities that Pierce deliciously pulls off with a Boston accent, a sturdy baritone and a lanky, self-effacing grace that suggests the sly innocence of Jimmy Stewart.
The cop is called after the murder of a horrible star during the opening-night curtain call for a show that, from what we can see, deserves the bashing it gets from critics. Assuming the murderer comes from the troupe, Lt. Cioffi "quarantines" everyone. Since he has a fan-crush on the understudy to the dead star, the courtship folds sweetly into the investigation. Along the way, he pretty adorably manages to fix the show.
Monk plays the tough-talking producer, whose husband (Ernie Sabella) plays around with chickies and whose daughter, Bambi (Megan Sikora), might not be as annoying as suggested by her dumb-blonde-with-a-squeaky-voice archetype. Ziemba is the lyricist who, in a pinch, takes over the lead. Jason Danieley, as her ex-composing partner, handsomely sings the show's most moving ballad, "I Miss the Music," clearly Kander's tribute to his late collaborator.
The familiar-looking sets, by Anna Louizos, move efficiently among backstage, back alley and onstage. Costumes, by William Ivey Long, are a welcome reminder that the '50s, with their wasp-waists and swirling skirts, weren't all dowdy.
"Curtains" lacks the originality of "The Drowsy Chaperone," last season's nostalgia-loving musical-within-a-musical discovery. This amiable patchwork makes a nod to "The Producers," another to "Crazy for You," and winks a bit at "Chicago." We're never sure if the show-within-a-show is a mess because it is meant to be. If so, the real show should have solved that mystery with more style.
One crafty way to make a musical critic-proof is to disarm the crix by skewering them where they live. Not only does "Curtains" have a show-loving gumshoe as intent on fixing a beleaguered Boston tryout production as he is on solving the murders that are depleting its ranks, it also has an antagonistic anthem to "everyone's enemy": theater reviewers. But at the risk of playing to the prejudices of William Goldman, who so graciously described legit critics in this paper last week as "humorless failures," "Curtains" isn't funny enough. At least that's the case for half the show, making it all the more surprising that, in the final assessment, it works.
That this determinedly old-fashioned murder-mystery musical actually comes out on top is a credit to the talented creative team involved, on- and offstage. Rarely does a show with such a meandering first act -- enlivened by low-key laughs but alarmingly light on momentum -- bounce back after intermission with such infectious, ingratiating spirit.
"Curtains" is one of the final collaborations of composing team John Kander and Fred Ebb, completed after the latter's death (and that of original book writer Peter Stone) by Kander and Rupert Holmes.
It’s tunes are never going to challenge those of the darker-textured "Cabaret" or "Chicago" as musical standards, and Holmes' book is a joke-driven concoction that needs a sharper pen. Amusing when it should be uproarious, pleasantly tuneful when it should be transporting, the show diverts but never dazzles. Somewhere early in act two, however, it quietly builds charm, cheek and cleverness, making it register as satisfying entertainment by final curtain.
Much of the credit goes to an expertly chosen cast. Like last season's superior "The Drowsy Chaperone"-- with which it shares elements of musical pastiche, a show-within-the-show and an irreverent affection for hoary tuners of the past -- "Curtains" relies not on conventional leads, but on a large ensemble capable of animating a bunch of thinly drawn characters.
Chief among these is David Hyde Pierce, delightfully mixing wide-eyed, kid-in-a-candy-store wonder with wry earnestness as Boston detective Frank Cioffi, whose community theater credits have given him an addiction to greasepaint. ("In 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,' my Bottom was very well-received," he boasts.) Every bit his equal is Debra Monk, deadpanning up a storm as brassy, trash-talking producer Carmen Bernstein.
Set in 1959, the show opens, appropriately, with the closing scene and curtain calls for "Robbin' Hood of the Old West" (think "Destry Rides Again") at Boston's Colonial Theater, its proscenium re-created within that of the Hirschfeld by designer Anna Louizos.
The disastrous and detested leading lady (Patty Goble) flubs her lines and screws up her dances before collapsing during the bows. Blistering reviews from the Boston critics next morning coincide with news of her death by poisoning. Enter Cioffi, who sequesters cast and crew in the theater for the investigation's duration.
While sizing up suspects, Frank becomes de facto show doctor, making subtle creative suggestions at first and later entirely overhauling numbers. His ideas are happily accepted by swishy director Christopher Belling (Edward Hibbert, all precision whip-turns and haughty attitude), who has no problem taking credit for other folks' work.
Act one has some fun numbers -- the aforementioned paean to theater critics, "What Kind of Man?" the solemnly unsympathetic dirge, "The Woman's Dead"; the celebratory "Show People"; and raucous "Robbin' Hood" saloon number "Thataway!"
Running parallel to the search for the killer in a company rife with motives is the bid to salvage the show's Broadway hopes. Former stage performer Georgia Hendricks (Karen Ziemba), the show's lyricist, is recruited to replace the slain lead, adding further friction to her relationship with ex-husband and composing partner Aaron (Jason Danieley). There's also a gentle courtship between Frank and peaches-and-cream ingenue Niki (Jill Paice).
While there's plenty going on, the underpowered first act is like a congenial game of Clue, with the appealing cast forced to compensate for the wan humor of Holmes' book. But as the conductor turns to face the audience at the top of act two and confirm the second murder, something starts clicking.
Musical high point, made irresistible by Monk's effortless delivery, is Carmen's cynical showstopper "It's a Business," in which she disses Gorky, Moliere, Beckett and O'Neill in favor of crowd-pleasing commercial froth. Also witty is "He Did It," in which suspicion rips through the company ranks; "Kansasland," a delirious Western riff that includes high-kicking cavalry and a luridly eroticized Indian dance from Carmen's stardom-obstructed daughter, Bambi (Megan Sikora); and "A Tough Act to Follow" a sugary fantasy that transforms Frank and Niki into Marge and Gower Champion.
While the songs are unlikely to stand up outside the context of the show, fans doubtless will enjoy the associations of hearing so many Kander & Ebb numbers that provide a double-edged reflection on showbiz lore and the process of making musicals. The most poignant is the sweet lament for a broken collaboration, "I Miss the Music," with lyrics, as well as music, penned by Kander after Ebb's death.
Director Scott Ellis stages the show with a light touch and a steady balance between backstage business and rowdy "Robbin' Hood" production numbers. He's aided by Louizos' imaginative, retro-styled sets and William Ivey Long's characterful costumes. Choreographer Rob Ashford seems overly convinced that a Kander & Ebb score demands spread-eagled women but, its occasional vulgarity aside, the dancing is plenty boisterous.
It's the cast, however, that lends distinction to the inconsistent material. It's a treat to see dependable musical performers like Ziemba, supple in both vocal and dance duties, and golden-voiced Danieley put to good use even if their characters' rekindling romance remains peripheral. Hibbert, Sikora and Noah Racey as the "Robbin' Hood" leading man all have their moments.
But while he only really steps out of the ensemble to claim star status in the riotously costumed final bows, Hyde Pierce, with his polished comic timing and more than serviceable singing skills, is the most invaluable asset. Combining a doe-eyed apparent docility with a suggestion of mischief, and balancing the seriousness of his role as investigator with his giddy distraction at being thrust into showbiz, he's clearly having a great time up there. His detective is a memorable comic creation who rescues this show from being just another self-satirizing musical spoof.