It’s always an event when a regional theater gets its first crack at a recent Broadway hit—and when that show is John Kander & Fred Ebb’s very last musical (and the recipient of eight Tony Award nominations), the event is well worth a road trip.
The musical in question is Curtains, directed with consummate flair by Roger DeLaurier, the first of three musical hits on this summer’s PCPA Theatrefest calendar, staged first in Santa Maria and then under the stars in Solvang.
A hybrid of the Backstage Musical and the Whodunit, Curtains takes a 1959 troupe of song-and-dance performers trying out a new musical in Boston, has the show-within-a-show’s god-awful leading lady get murdered while taking her bows, adds to the mix a police detective with a passion for musicals, and quarantines cast and crew inside the theater till the murderer gets found. The result, while not up there with Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago, is still a thoroughly entertaining musical comedy in the classic mode. Heck, it even has a full-length Overture.
The detective in question is Lt. Frank Cioffi (Andrew Philpot) and his prime suspects include hard-bitten producer Carmen Bernstein (Kitty Balay) and her producing partner/hubby Sydney (Evans Eden Jarnefeldt), divorced songwriters Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox (Melinda Parrett and Michael Jenkinson), choreographer/leading man Bobby Pepper (Rhett Guter), the murdered star’s understudy Niki Harris (Karin Hendricks), the show’s flamboyant British director Christopher Belling (Erik Stein), Niki’s understudy (and Carmen’s daughter) Bambi (née Elaine Bernstein) Bernét (Natasha Harris), stage manager Johnny Harmon (Jerry Lee), poison-penned drama critic Daryl Grady (Adam Schroeder), and financial backer Oscar Shapiro (Billy Breed).
The musical the Bernsteins’ are producing is an Old West adaptation of Robin Hood (appropriately retitled Robbin’ Hood Of The Old West), and features big, brassy production numbers with titles like “Wide Open Spaces,” “In The Same Boat,” “Thataway!,” and “Kansasland,” all of which allow Curtains choreographer Jenkinson and his talented song-and-dance ensemble to imagine a 1940s/50s Broadway show in the tradition (though not necessarily the quality) of Oklahoma! It even has an Agnes de Mille-inspired number which sends up the revolutionary dream ballets de Mille created for Oklahoma! and Carousel.
Meanwhile, the investigation proceeds, the list of suspects is whittled down by another murder or two (plus a couple of unsuccessful attempts), and some great Kander & Ebb tunes get sung, including the rousing sure-to-be-a-standard “Show People,” romantic ballads like “Thinking Of Him” and “I Miss The Music,” and a Fred & Ginger homage entitled “A Tough Act To Follow.” Among Curtain’s best and wittiest numbers are “What Kind Of Man?,” which has Robbin’ Hood’s producers and songwriters wondering what could possibly inspire a human being to become that monstrosity known as a drama critic; a hilarious funereal dirge entitled “The Woman’s Dead,” “He Did It,” with cast and crew speculating (with flashlights in the dark) about just who the murderer might be; and “It’s A Business,” Carmen’s ode to the cutthroat life of a theatrical producer. Only the drab “Coffee Shop Nights” should have been replaced or cut during Curtains’ out-of-town preview at the Ahmanson.
While the PCPA cast may not have the “name value” of the original production (which featured Broadway biggies like Debra Monk, Karen Ziemba, and David Hyde Pierce, winner of the Tony for his performance as Lt. Cioffi), it does star some of the terrifically talented PCPA pros audiences will remember from last summer’s Les Misérables and The Music Man, particularly Philpot, Balay, Stein, Jenkinson, and assistant choreographer Guter, with Hendricks and Parrett being delightful discoveries for this reviewer.
I especially liked the personal stamp Philpot put on a role so identified with its Broadway star, particularly the contrast between his jaded police detective looks and the enthusiastic musical theater fan (and amateur performer) he soon reveals himself to be. And as for Stein’s reinvention of the gay theater director cliché, the words comic tour de force come to mind, the actor’s outrageously rubbery body language being almost worth the price of admission.
Completing the all-around terrific cast are Michael Feldman, John Keating, Layli Kayhani, Leah Hart Kolb, Mara Leffer (a hoot as murdered Jessica Cranshaw), Aaron Lopez, Corey Monk, Angela Nicholson, Laura Pronge, Daniel J. Self, Jillian Van Niel, Drew Swaine, Louise Tremblay, George Walker, and Brenna Wall—talented triple threats each and every one.
Jenkinson pays tribute to those great ‘40s/’50s choreographers in the production numbers he’s designed for the Robbin’ Hood sequences, with a bit of Busbee Berkley thrown in for the Fred & Ginger-inspired “A Tough Act To Follow.”
Callum Morris deserves applause for his musical direction, with Matt Carpenter’s sound design (and Solvang Festival Theatre’s sound system) making the show’s prerecorded 13-piece orchestra tracks sound almost as good as live.
Frederick P. Deeben’s terrific costumes are a blend of ‘50s fashions for the backstage sequences and Old West gear for the musical within the musical. DeAnne Kennedy’s scenic design and Tamar Guest’s lighting merit thumbs up as well. Christine Collins is production stage manager, Aleah Van Woert is stage manager, and Denise Dumeyer is vocal coach.
Though I wish that there had not been a few instances of Ebb’s lyrics and Rupert Holmes book (PG-13 at their most raunchy) being unnecessarily sanitized, in other respects this production stands up very well indeed to the much higher budgeted Broadway original.
PCPA’s next musical offering in Solvang will be the revolutionary ‘50s classic West Side Story, and the summer’s musical season will conclude with Jason Robert Brown’s very modern song cycle Songs For The New World. For those planning their musical summers a year in advance, Solvang 2011 will premiere another new-to-regional-theaters hit Hairspray and a brand new musical by Stephen (Wicked) Schwartz. In the meantime, there’s Curtains, opening the summer season with bright bouncy musical comedy mystery fun.
Note: Bring along warm clothing and a blanket for this under-the-stars evening. Nights in Solvang can get quite chilly indeed.
Festival Theater, 420 2nd Street, Solvang.
June 23, 2010
Photos: Clint Bersuch and Luis Escobar