Irving — It isn’t fair to compare a professional and community theater, but on the weekend of July 24, it was impossible not to juxtapose local productions of two musicals that premiered on Broadway within five years of each other: Catch Me If You Can at Uptown Players and Curtains at Mainstage Irving-Las Colinas.
Catch Me is a dull musical receiving a production so sublime it makes the material look better than it is. And then there’s Curtains, which is by leaps and bounds a more entertaining and better-written musical, enjoying a good-but-not-great production, directed by B.J. Cleveland (who has had his own share of Uptown successes).
It’s no use getting into the community vs. professional theater debate, because Mainstage is one of the more reliable community theaters in the area, with a larger budget, and its summer musical attracts some fantastic talent (both established and up-and-coming), fully on display in Curtains. If the production lacks the polish and, most notably, an exemplary chorus of dancers/singers (honestly, that’s a problem even in professional productions in these parts) of Uptown’s Catch Me, the music, songs and book of Curtains are far superior.
Curtains comes from a musical theater duo that truly deserves the adjective “legendary”: John Kander and Fred Ebb, who know a thing or two about delectable lyrics and smart rhymes. The book is by Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood), based on a book and concept by Peter Stone (1776), who died in 2003 before the project was finished. It premiered on Broadway in 2007, after an LA tryout in 2006.
The rhymes, the jokes, the witticisms, the songs, the melodies—sigh. You just don’t get this level of musical comedy writing from contemporary musical teams.
Aside from the fact that these songs are the kind that musical theater actors dream of performing, it’s clear why theaters want to produce Curtains: It’s a love letter to the theater. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t been done more often here. Marketing can’t be that hard when you can add “from the creators of Cabaret and Chicago.”
Here’s the story: It’s 1959 and a new musical is having a Broadway tryout in Boston. Robbin’ Hood of the Old West is filled with the cornpone, parasol-twirling clichés you would have seen in lesser musicals in the 1940s and ’50s. The cast struggles to make it work when the top-billed star, a terrible-but-popular actress named Jessica Cranshaw (played by Andi Allen) drops dead.
Could it be…murder?
Segue to a behind-the-scenes, show-within-a-show murder mystery. Naturally, more mysterious deaths happen and there’s a showmance or two. Think Agatha Christie meets Kiss Me, Kate.
The suspects include the ingénue Niki Harris (Daron Cockerell), producer Carmen Bernstein (Sara Shelby-Martin), her co-producer and ex-husband Sidney Bernstein (Brad Smith), married-but-separated composer Aaron Fox (Ken O’Reilly) and lyricist Georgia Hendricks (Arianna Movassagh), director Christopher Belling (Lon Barerra), theater manager Oscar Shapiro (Tony Martin) and chorus member Bambi Bernet (Jamie Ecklund).
Enter the outsiders: Lt. Frank Cioffi (Corey Whaley in the role for which David Hyde Pierce received raves on Broadway), who happens to be a musical theater fan, and Boston Globe theater critic Daryl Grady (Dustin Curry), who has trashed the show but returns to write a follow-up story.
And the songs? To quote from the show, they’re catchier than pink eye. Some of the lyrics would make Sondheim jelly.
“Show People” is a hilarious ode to the idea of the show going on (not to mention the pitfalls of union contracts); “I Miss the Music” is a heavenly ballad about the power of music; “Thataway!” finds plenty of near-rhymes for that word (“Paraguay,” “Santa Fe,” “getaway,” “he left me flat away”) as well as “thisaway” (“he takes that bitch away”); “He Did It” is most Sondheimian; and “What Kind of Man?” is a delicious slam of critics (this critic hasn’t laughed that hard in a while).
Then there’s “It’s a Business,” a genius art vs. commerce diatribe with lines like “he mounted Samuel Beckett, I don’t mean it like it sounds” and “I put on The Iceman Cometh and no one cameth.” There are also mentions of Molière, Richard Rodgers, Shaw and Lysistrata. The entire musical is filled with clever theater references, including Sartre’s No Exit and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (“my Bottom was very well received”). Brassy Shelby-Martin slays on “It’s a Business” and “Show People,” reasserting herself as one of the funniest musical comedy actors in town.
Musical director Scott Eckert’s orchestra balances the sound nicely with the stage action (and he gets a funny speaking cameo); choreographer Kelly McCain’s Robbin’ Hood dances reference Agnes de Mille and honor the time period; scenic designer Michelle Harvey meets the show’s challenges of onstage/backstage locations; and Tory Padden’s costumes look swell.
There are no quibbles with lead vocal performances, with standouts being O’Reilly, Movassagh (her comic timing is dead-on in “Thataway!”) and Cockerell. Same with the lead performances: Barerra is funny as a nightmare of a director who has his own interests in mind; and Whaley is marvelous as a dashing detective who convincingly falls for an actress even though he’s a musical theater queen at heart (it’s 1959; give him a few decades).
Cleveland’s cast delivers the inside jokes with deadpan when called for, with no winking at the audience. Kander and Ebb send up a certain style and era of musical comedy, and Cleveland understands this kind of humor. The downside to the Mainstage production is that the chorus isn’t perfect, dancing slightly out of sync—although in the Robbin’ Hood numbers, maybe that’s the point. (Unlikely.) At the performance attended (the first matinee), pacing was a bit slow.
So, again, it’s not a fair comparison to Uptown’s Catch Me If You Can. After all, Kander and Ebb are a tough act to follow.