Wyndham’s Theatre, London – until 11 January 2020
Christmas is the perfect time for a murder mystery, the dark nights, the cold weather that makes you want to bustle up and the obligatory frustration of people gathering together for enforced celebration feel like the perfect setting for a bit of seasonal homicide. From Agatha Christie to Georges Simenon, plenty of mysteries have been based in the festive period, usually in isolated mansions, cut off by blizzards from the the outside world as a disparate family or group with an axe decide to grind it. And for an audience, we love the opportunity to embrace the cosy drama of it all, relishing the chance to pit ourselves against the lone detective as we work out the connection between the victim, suspects and plenty of unearthed secrets.
Curtains: The Musical Comedy arrives in London at just the right time and while it’s not set at Christmas or even discernibly wintery, it nonetheless feels like a perfect festive treat in the most theatrical of wrappers. And it is certainly a gift to the Wyndham’s Theatre after the disastrous Man in the White Suit crashed out of the West End after horrible reviews and poor ticket sales, leaving a four-week slot available for this transfer (and the West End premiere) of Kander and Ebb’s musical which has been touring the UK in the last few months, earning critical and audience applause – a feat it repeated on press night.
Curtains is in some ways a strange splicing of theatre and narrative styles, simultaneously – and ambitiously – telling the story of a murder but also the journey from out of town flop in Boston to viable Broadway show, along with the backstage politics that make every member of this large Company a potential suspect. Naturally, across its two hours and 45-minute run-time these different strands compete for primacy with the murder investigation often taking a backseat as other storylines are established and followed with greater energy.
The mixed-style of the piece also merges songs written specifically for the Western musical-within-a-musical that the company are producing, as well as numbers sung by the characters playing actors and their detective behind the scenes, which adds to what is a rich and complex proposition for any stage musical. Yet somehow it works, the energy of it carrying the show between delightful set-pieces while steadily advancing the plot – this is more than just a whodunnit, Kander and Ebb want to immerse you in the theatrical world of actors, producers, directors and investors to understand quite what’s at stake when putting on a show.
Famed for creating Chicago and Cabaret, John Kander, Fred Ebb and book writer Rupert Holmes created Curtains in the early 2000s with an eventual Broadway transfer in 2007, and the whole show is an unabashed celebration of musical theatre. And in a strong year for new London productions, Curtains finishes 2019 on a high with a true song and dance show that glories in its love of the stage and the process of putting on a production. It is a very different style of show to the sultry atmosphere of Kander and Ebb’s earlier work, a glossier, glitzier and somewhat sanitised vision of human nature where not even some silly murders will stop the show from going on.
It has tones of 42nd Street and A Chorus Line on stage in the way it blends the action in front of and behind the curtain, but there’s also plenty of old Hollywood in there too with the 1959 setting allowing the design and choreography to draw on the big MGM movies which set the standard for song and dance on film. The central premise of Curtains is a theatre-loving detective who needs to simultaneously find the killer by refusing to let the cast and crew leave the building while helping them to fix the ailing Robin Hood musical that has failed to impress the Boston critics – the fact the story of the Nottinghamshire outlaw is relocated to the Wild West doesn’t raise so much as an eyebrow, so it’s best just to go with it. It is a fun twist on the generic Colombo-type investigator by giving him a sideline in amateur theatrics and a director’s eye for detail and drama.
There is plenty to enjoy in Paul Foster’s production; the staging of the Western sections take on a heightened quality to differentiate them from the rest of the story with some zesty numbers, well choreographed by Alistair David, that reference the golden era of Hollywood. The Act One finale ‘Thataway!’, the eventual restyling of ‘In the Same Boat’ and ‘Wide Open Spaces’ in Act Two are particularly enjoyable calling on influences from the Cyd Charisse sections of ‘Broadway Melody’ in Singin’ in the Rain and there’s a clear nod to Oklahoma and, of course, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in the light and upbeat dance stylisation that emphasies open gestures and Technicolor charm directed right at the audience.
There are some great dance performance here too across the ensemble who tirelessly provide a lot of the texture with syncopated group numbers that draw on line and folk dance, while the foregrounded performance of Alan Burkitt as the Robin Hood character (actor Bobby in the backstage world) is full of balletic skill with his performance of the jazz choreography particularly accomplished. His “pas de deux for two” partner Elaine (Emma Caffrey) who likes to be known as “Bambi” is a great match for him in the penultimate number in an impressive sequence.
Outside of the ailing show, the suspects pile up – as do the bodies – although the show doesn’t have the usual drive and looming sense of doom that characterises most murder mysteries. Depending on what you’re hoping for from Curtains that may be a negative as the story frequently digresses to focus on other types of theatrics, but the possible motives abound and as the story unfolds various characters come more firmly into the spotlight which draws the plot back to the central puzzle. Across Act Two this eventually builds to a high stakes denouement that makes for a satisfying conclusion to the murder, romance and musical rewrite co-plots as well as throwing up a few surprises to tie-up loose ends.
While primarily known for his work as a comedian Jason Manford proves he’s a rounded theatre performer at heart, instilling his interpretation of Detective Frank Cioffi with boyish excitement at being among a company of actors. There is a glee in his interactions with the various suspects that calls on the character’s experience as an amateur and dreams of joining a professional company, so Manford finds lots of humour in Cioffi’s semi-star-struck interactions. There’s also a nice symmetry to the parallel plots which centre around Cioffi’s problem solving ability and Manford makes it entirely credible that the policeman could sift through the evidence while simultaneously offering independent advice on the musical’s failings. Finally, Manford’s Cioffi offers a surface naivety, developing a sweet intimacy with suspect Niki that keeps the audience guessing about the outcome, while his singing voice in their duets ‘Coffee Shop Nights’ and ‘A Tough Act to Follow’ is delightful.
Carley Stenson’s lyricist turned replacement leading lady Georgia is wonderfully sympathetic, wowing the audience with an early rendition of ‘Thinking of Him’ before delivering the sassy ‘Thatawaty!’ in her Western role that shows her character’s developing confidence. There’s a love triangle with Burkitt’s Bobby and Georgia’s songwriter ex-husband Aaron played by Andy Coxon (from 6 January this role is played by Ore Oduba) whose lovelorn version of ‘I Miss the Music’ is a treat. As well as showcasing her dance skills, Caffrey’s “Bambi” also well represents the pushy young actress desperate to improve her part by stealing the limelight but resentfully held in check by a critical mother, which Caffrey vividly creates. And not forgetting a great turn from Samuel Holmes as snooty English director Christopher Belling whose razor sharp put-downs and one liners lift many a scene.
Further texture comes from the characters who represent the business of show, especially the excellent Rebecca Lock as producer Carmen, locked in battles with her husband and balancing the budget as she decides to defy the critics and take the show to Broadway somehow. Lock has some great numbers including the hilarious ‘It’s a Business’ which is a fierce dismissal of art in favour of theatre’s money-making purpose. And the different theatre perspectives are completed by a fleeting glance at an evil critic from the Boston Globe, Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles) whose hatchet job propels the show as well as inspiring the comic song ‘What Kind of Man’ sung by the creative team behind the Robin Hood musical. With all of that happening backstage, there’s plenty to kill for.
Curtains isn’t a perfect show and for something that shines a spotlight on the complex relationships and trade-offs behind the scenes, the characters are largely impressionistic, while at times it becomes overly distracted by the numerous romantic entanglements rather than tightly focusing on murder, mystery and motive. But, there is so much love for musical theatre, the process of co-creating a show as well as the joy of song and dance that the warmth and enthusiasm of this production is sure to win you over. Concluding its West End engagement, Curtains goes back on the road until April visiting venues across the country including Sunderland, Llandudno, Liverpool, Glasgow and Southampton, and while now may feel like the right time of year for a cosy puzzle don’t miss the chance to see this charming show in a venue near you. Perhaps murder mysteries aren’t just for Christmas after all.
Curtains: The Musical Comedy is at the Wyndhams Theatre until 11 January with tickets from £17.50 and then touring until 11 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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