A silly, scintillating romp through the lost glories of musical theatre
Composer John Kander and lyricist Frank Ebb were a solid gold musical theatre partnership to rival Rogers and Hammerstein. Like their predecessors, they had their fair share of flops to offset the undeniable hits; flops are hardly worth mentioning, but the hits included Cabaret and Chicago. Their partnership technically came to an end in 2004 when Ebb died, but they had a few shows in development – including the stunning Scottsboro Boys – that Kander managed to bring to production. Curtains was one of them, too.
A “backstage musical” about the murder of a talentless leading lady and the subsequent solving of the crime, it plays out as a silly but affectionate love letter to the idea of the American musical as an indefatigable source of hope and energy in a world of murder and mayhem. The result is the kind of corny, irrepressible entertainment that musical theatre used to stand for, before Sondheim came and deepened and darkened it for good.
The main thing Curtains has going for it is the central character of Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Simon Gleeson), the detective sent to solve the crime who is so enamoured of musical theatre that he often seems more interested in improving the show’s prospects than finding the killer. This is a single gag that nevertheless keeps paying off in ever more delightful ways, and Gleeson – most recently seen in far more sombre form as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables – is nothing short of sublime. His high-pitched Boston accent and wide, innocent grin make him seem like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from Shutter Island on ecstasy.
The rest of this Production Company cast are so good they make the other characters, from the thinly drawn director (Colin Lane in hilariously arch form) to the hackneyed young ingenue (Alinta Chidzey), almost credible. Alex Rathgeber and Lucy Maunder are as classy as hell as the ex-husband-and-wife composer and lyricist of the show within the show, Robbin’ Hood. Melissa Langton is brilliant as the brassy producer, and John Wood and Nicki Wendt bring a wealth of experience to minor but pivotal roles.
The whole thing is expertly guided by director Roger Hodgman, who wisely keeps the design sparse and flexible, and the playing style casual and light. The scenes of Robbin’ Hood fondly evoke memories of Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun, as well as Showboat and Crazy for You. It is pastiche as homage more than piss-take, a deliberately facile but entertaining romp through the history of an art form.
It would seem a pity that Kander and Ebb were reduced to this kind of concept musical after the genuinely radical achievements of their past, and it’s true that Curtains isn’t the best of their output. But one moment in the show has real pathos, and hints at a deeper purpose. The composer Aaron sings about his musical partner and ex-wife that “I miss the music I made with her”. With a single pronoun change, you’d have a touching eulogy to one of the great musical partnerships of all time.
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