Unlike most Brits, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had the pleasure (we’ll come back to that word) of seeing Curtains before its current UK tour, when we caught it at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York in 2008 – I know, so cosmopolitan. I remember it reasonably fondly; Mrs C less so, and she took some convincing to see this first major British production. I recall I was perplexed at the time that the Broadway production didn’t transfer to the West End. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I understand why.
Curtains comes with a massive pedigree: primarily its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb, whose back-catalogue shines with highlights such as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the movie Funny Lady. Fred Ebb died whilst writing Curtains, as did book writer Peter Stone, so Rupert Holmes (he of The Pina Colada Song, Him, and The Mystery of Edwin Drooooood) stepped in to complete the task. Nevertheless, all of us can have our off days, and, musically, you can’t deny that Curtains is a severe disappointment. No memorable songs, no songs that have taken a life of their own outside the show, no great tunes. We all know people who say, that whilst they like “the theatre”, they can’t stand musicals. To my mind, musicals are an incredibly versatile art form, capable of creating sheer magic on a stage, exploring characters, revealing truths, deconstructing dilemmas in their own unique way. However, Curtains is the kind of musical that people who hate musicals think all musicals are like. If this was the first musical I’d ever seen, I’d dismiss the genre as kinda woeful.
The trouble with Curtains is (and I’m talking about the bare bones of the show here, not this production) that it’s trying to be a number of things but fails at them all. It wants to be taken as a serious musical in its own right, but the songs simply aren’t up to it – in fact this is far and away the worst score by Kander and Ebb that I have come across. It wants to be a comedy whodunit, but it completely lacks suspense. In its attempt to parody/pastiche landmark musicals like Oklahoma! or Finian’s Rainbow, it concentrates on their trademark scenes, such as big hoedown stomps or dream ballet sequences, but, taken out of the context of their original shows, they just slow down the natural development of this show. It also makes the show feel immensely dated. Whereas in Cabaret and Chicago the music and the style instantly gives you a time-setting without having to spell it out, you forget that Curtains is meant to be set in 1950s Boston, primarily because there’s no obvious reason for it. Musicals and murder are timeless, so why isn’t this?
Chrisparkle’s first law of musical theatre is that each song should progress either the plot or our understanding of the characters, or at least the general setting of the show. There’s nothing more frustrating than a stop-start musical where the story takes a break each time an ensemble assembles to sing something. Unfortunately, so many of the numbers in Curtains consist of the audience passively viewing the performance (or rehearsal) from another show (in this case the fictional Robbin’ Hood) which have no meaning or significance for us the audience. Take, for example, the lengthy Thataway that closes the first Act; it’s all bluster and no content, a very repetitive tune that never soars even when you think it might. It’s just an excuse for some swirling skirts and cowboy high-kickin’ (which, to be fair, the cast perform extremely well). But there’s no drama to it, no character development, nothing with which to lead you into the interval with a greater understanding of what’s going on.
Talking of intervals, it didn’t help that, technically, the performance was a bit of a disaster. The interval climax big effect, where murder victim #2 is found suspended noose-first from the curtains, simply didn’t happen. The characters told us all to “look up there” (or words to that effect) but there was nothing happening “up there”. Then, after Jason Manford’s Cioffi yelled “blackout!” to signify the end of the Act, the curtain fell, only to part rise again to reveal what looked like a degree of backstage consternation at the fact that the effect hadn’t worked. First night in a new theatre, yes, sometimes things go wrong. It happens.
Surely there were some good things? Yes indeed. Let’s start at the top with Mr Manford. I’ve not seen him in a musical before, and I thought he was excellent. The characterisation of musical-loving Detective Cioffi, hankering romantically after the ingénue Niki Harris, fanboying the writers and the director, worked extremely well. The Broadway production we saw starred David Hyde Pierce in the same role and he camped it up rotten. Jason Manford’s performance, however, was much more nuanced, more considered and more believable. And of course he has excellent comic timing, which he used to great effect.
Rebecca Lock also gives a fine, beefy performance as the no-nonsense, hard-nosed producer Carmen Bernstein, chucking out savage one-liners whilst belting out her numbers; think Ethel Merman meets Joan Rivers. It’s just a shame that her one-liners weren’t a little funnier and less predictable, but that’s not her fault. Carley Stenson looks and sounds great as Georgia Hendricks, parachuted in to play the lead role when the actress who was going to play Madame Marian suffers a terminal first-night curtain call. Ore Oduba was good, if a little clinical, as Aaron Fox, the composer, and his voice was a little under-amplified in the singing department.
There’s great support from the rest of the cast, especially Emma Caffrey as the show-off Bambi, and understudy Robin Kent who débuted the busy and important role of Bobby Pepper and did a terrific job. Capping it all, there’s a prize performance from Samuel Holmes as the flouncy director Christopher Belling, bitching his way around the stage, side-stepping blame and trouble like a slalom expert. I last saw Mr Holmes as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, where he stole the show; he really does this kind of spoilt brat incredibly well.
The other person who drags this show up by its bootstrings and does his best to redeem it, is choreographer Alistair David. An alumnus of so many brilliant lavish shows in Sheffield and Chichester, his dance routines for Curtains throughout are exciting, cheeky, and simply enjoyable. And it’s a testament to the great boys and girls of the dance team that they’re more than up to the task and make those otherwise bland set numbers watchable.
Mrs C started to nod off during Ms Stenson’s performance of Thinking of Him – nothing against Ms Stenson at all, just the fact that the plot had stopped in order for her to sing an irrelevant song, and it’s a cue to the audience to take their mind off the story and let their minds wander. I tried to pull her back to consciousness a few times during the first Act but she’d already lost interest, and was only vaguely sentient at odd moments. She experienced more of the Second Act and even laughed at Mr Holmes’ retort to Bambi: “the only thing you could arouse is suspicion” (winner of Best Line in Show). I stayed awake, but, have to admit, felt pretty bored for much of the time.
Alas, the most glittering of casts would have difficulty jump-starting this old banger of a show. After this week, the tour valiantly continues to Blackpool, Glasgow, Leicester, High Wycombe, Wolverhampton and Southampton. Go for the performances and the dancing; look away for the rest.
Production photos by Richard Davenport