The Walnut Street Theater Opens Its Season With Kander And Ebb’s Musical Whodunit – CURTAINS

by Arnie Finkel

Wow! The last musical by Kander and Ebb (Fred Ebb died before the lyrics were complete). The fabulous duo, responsible for Chicago, Zorba, The Kiss of the Spider Woman and Woman of the Year, just to name a few, didn’t disappoint, with a rich and tuneful score for CURTAINS. Additional lyrics after Ebb’s demise were supplied by John Kander and Rupert Holmes.

From the Overture on, this production glows with good singing and terrific dancing. The plot puts us at the Colonial Theater in Boston in 1959. We are at the out of town tryout for a new musical. At the end of the opening night, the no talent star is murdered at the curtain call. Detective Lt. Frank Cioffi of the Boston police (and a neighborhood community theater) has to save the show, solve the murder and find a little love interest before the curtain comes down. Musicals about murder have been done before, as have backstage musicals. This is more of a send up of all of them. CURTAINS is an old style Musical Comedy. Integration of plot in music and lyrics is not paramount. That is not to say that the musical numbers don’t comment on theater or build character. “What Kind of Man” is a right on comment about reviewers. “Coffee Shop Nights” tells us lots about the Lt. Cioffi. And “I Miss the Music” lets us know the situation between the song writing couple. “It’s a Business” is a cynical but comic look at producing a Broadway show. It could be that “Show People” will find its way to becoming a show business anthem like “There’s No Business Like Show Business”. All of the ensemble numbers are fitting– if shoe horned in.

The Ensemble from Curtains. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The Ensemble of CURTAINS, playing at Walnut Street Theatre now through October 24.

David Hess plays Lt. Cioffi with just a touch of shyness when required. He sings well and has superb timing. Julie Reiber as Niki Harris, Cioffi’s love interest, sings and dances into your heart. Denise Whelan as Carmen Bernstein, the hard hearted producer with the proverbial heart of gold, and Laurent Giroux as Christopher Belling, the harassed brilliant British director, each display instinctive comic timing. They make the most of every laugh line-and there are plenty of them. The song writing pair is played by Nancy Lemenager, who dances and sings like an angel, and the ever-reliable Jeffery Coon, whose voice astounds me every time I hear him. Both David Elder and Mindy Dougherty sing and dance well. The whole cast plays the comedy and sing and dance expertly.

If there is a weak spot in the show, it’s the book. Peter Stone had the original idea but he died with the script incomplete. Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book for The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well as several mysteries, rewrote and finished the script. I felt the last half of the second act where the solution was at last revealed was rushed and not somehow satisfactory. The best parts of the book were the laugh lines.

Both the directing and choreography were in the very capable hands of Richard Stafford. Most of his work is superb. I’d like to see less frantic movement in Ms. Whelan’s big number “It’s a Business”. The lyrics are so good that so much action tends to blur the meaning of the gags. Douglass G. Lutz is Musical Director. His work shines in all the vocal and orchestral effects .The scenery, lighting, sound and costumes suited the tenor of the production.

The Walnut is off and running with a hit. Take the family-you’ll enjoy it.

Music & Lyrics by John Kander & Fred Ebb
Book by Rupert Holmes
Directed/Choreographed by Richard Stafford
Musical Direction by Douglass G. Lutz
September 15 – October 24, 2010
Walnut Street Theatre
825 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA

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