Remember those valentines you made back in grade school? The red construction paper hearts that were but a little crooked, with the lace doilies glued on, and maybe some glitter added at the last minute? The feelings behind them were great, but the actual product was a bit off, a little messy, a touch incomplete.
The same could be said of Curtains, the heartfelt valentine to show business that opened last week at the Al Hirschfield Theatre. The dancing is fast, the music is loud, the sets are bright, and the cast is extremely talented. But the elements just don’t add up quite right.
The place: the Boston Colonial Theatre. The time: 1959. The play Robbin’ Hood has just completed its opening night and been slaughtered by the critics. Its leading lady has died after collapsing onstage during her curtain call. And, to make matters worse, her death wasn’t an accident. It was murder.
Enter Lt. Cioffi of the Boston police force. He is not only a detective but an aspiring actor himself, all too delighted to sequester the cast in the theatre and rub shoulders with them until he has solved whodunit. What follows is a scattering of scenes of the musical in the musical, as well as the mystery of the murder itself. During the process of solving the crime, Cioffi jumps into the rehearsal process and aides the director in fixing the problems in the actual show as well. Romance, danger and blackmail abound onstage, as well as some catchy melodies and suggestive costumes.
The tongue is wedged firmly in the cheek of this show, which should piece together to create a biting satire about musical theatre and hopes of Broadway. The lack of actual art, the need for money, the inter-cast relationships and even the sexuality of those cute backup dancers are all included in the script and presented to the audience.
Broadway is roasted here, and the roast is well-done, with all the necessary ingredients: a horrific leading lady, a bright-eyed ingénue, a sharp-tongued director, and an all-knowing stage hand. Toss in an few songs about the industry – a melody about the horrors of theatre critics, wondering what kind of person would pursue that career and another about the business behind the scenes, and you’ve got yourself a formula for success.
However, while the laughs are plenty and the faults few, the satire of the piece never solidifies and sometimes the audience is not quite aware of what it is laughing at. This piece of theatre about a piece of theatre has difficulty balancing the irony necessary to carry the show. The satire feels disjointed at times and lacks cohesiveness. The humor is ever present, but the actual punch lines are not.
The cast does all that it can with the content, especially the leading man, David Hyde Pierce. The script permits him to display his superbly understated physical comedy skills, which were first glimpsed in Spamalot, as the not-so-brave Sir Robin. His awkward, yet endearing, feeble attempts at the suave sophistication of a leading man are scene-stealers throughout the show, put to good use in the second act number, “A Tough Act To follow.” The lengthy number is a loving tribute to the bygone days of Fred and Ginger, when true love was expressed through song and dance, and onstage kisses were chaste. The name of the number is true – it is a tough act to follow – and nothing that does quite exceeds it.
Another standout in the cast is Debra Monk, the brassy and bold stage mother who never stops putting down her daughter. Her standout number, “It’s a Business,” explains the producer’s reasoning behind the curtains, and her blunt assessment of the financial aspects of the theatre is a double-edged sword, reveling in its humor and accuracy. However, this level of humor is not maintained throughout the show. The glossy, lavishly ornate numbers of Robbin’ Hood are admirable in their execution, but the actual content – rakish, racy and reprehensible – are almost cringe inducing.
Fortunately, It is safe to say that none of the cast fall under that category. They play their parts with heartfelt passion and evident skill. As Aaron, the musicician behind the show, Jason Danieley puts his lush tenor to good use, and Karen Ziemba’s Georgia, who is responsible for the lyrics, displays admirable talent and strength when she steps into the leading lady’s shoes. Edward Hibbert gives Christopher, the director, depth behind his quick-witted lines, and Jill Paice is light of foot and voice as Niki, the innocent ingénue.
The valentine may be crooked and some of the glitter may fall off as it is handled. But it is made with loving care, and it does not fail to produce a smile.