'Curtains' at the Walnut: No seriousness will be tolerated

Nancy Lemenager (left), David Hess, Julie Reiber, and the ensemble in the murder- mystery frolic.
Nancy Lemenager (left), David Hess, Julie Reiber, and the ensemble in the murder- mystery frolic.
Posted: September 17, 2010

Dinner-theater murder mysteries are common, but Curtains, which opened the Walnut Street Theatre main stage season Wednesday in a likable, energetic production, is another story. It's a murder mystery, but big-time, taking sarcastic aim at big-business Broadway musicals while being one, with a large cast (here, 25), bang-up production numbers, and A-list creators John Kander (music) and the late Fred Ebb (lyrics).

While Curtains doesn't supply quite the electricity of their Cabaret or Chicago, it boasts fine moments, some particularly funny lyrics, and a scriptload of one-line zingers by Rupert Holmes, who rewrote Curtains after its creator, Peter Stone, died while writing it in 2003.

Fun is the operative word: 21/2 hours of old-fashioned escape, like a dime-store novel blown out for the stage. Any serious point would be wholly unwelcome, and a first-act love song (beautifully delivered by Jeffrey Coon) that comes dangerously close is quickly rescued by the kooky story line.

The musical is a play within a play - a goofy show about a cheesy show. We join the Broadway-bound cast as it ends the 1959 opening night of Robbin' Hood in Boston with a horrendous leading-lady diva whose performance rises by several notches after she drops dead stage rear.

A cop enters the theater to announce to the cast that the diva has been murdered - and by the way, "I've done a little community theater myself." Uh-oh. The very man who must solve the crime is also a fan with ideas about making the show less of a dog, or at least a show dog.

Our hero is played by David Hess, and why he - overseen by Curtains' director-choreographer, Richard Stafford - landed on an unidentifiable accent that's supposed to be Boston-talk is a mystery far more urgent than the one in the show's plot. Aside from that, though, Hess is charming and Stafford handily lets the flaky story play out and sets his spunky dances on an able cast. Denise Whelan, as a mouthy producer, nails the best lines. Laurent Giroux is a wonderfully snarky director, and David Elder is super-genial in the actor's role he also played on Broadway.

Curtains exploits the idea that it's a show about another show; many numbers are supposed rehearsal reworks of the awful musical the ensemble is trying to bolster. As a result, we get songs with little context about a show we've never seen; one number is on the sea, the next in Kansas.

Still, they're done with verve, except for the most important one: a second-act signature piece in which the detective and a love interest (the darling Julie Reiber) dance in a dream. At the Walnut, it pales languidly in comparison to the spectacular 2007 Broadway version, a showstopper on a set like a wedding cake.

Is the Walnut's shadow version of the number a money problem or a creative one? But the Walnut didn't scrimp on Curtains; Colleen Grady's costumes alone are worth a smaller stage's annual budget. Nor does its creative team short-shrift the rest of the show. The theater, as Curtains proclaims, can be full of puzzles.


Curtains

Through Oct. 24 at Walnut Street Theatre, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $10-$95. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.


Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com.

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