Book by Rupert Holmes , Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb with additional lyrics by Kander & Holmes

Directed by John Leffert
Music directed by Angie Hopperton
Choreography by Valerie Hopkins

Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright 2012 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

Congratulations to CenterStage for being the first to deliver a production of Curtains to Louisville audiences. This entertaining send-up of backstage murder mysteries is a fun and engaging show, despite some clichéd plot lines and obvious humor. The show’s history was a difficult one, with two deaths among the creative team and a lukewarm reaction to the first production. But it overcame such adversity to become a success on Broadway, winning three Tony Awards.
But part of the lesson may be that making Curtains work requires top-notch staging and performances that embrace the broad and sometimes predictable humor. Many of the jokes play as if they should be followed by a rim shot, and the cast members who make it work the best are the ones who aren’t afraid to ham it up pretty good and give a wink and a nod to the audience. Jason Cooper as the over-the-top director and Carol Dines as a tough-as-nails producer get top honors on this score. But more about that later.
The story, set in 1959, concerns a new musical in tryouts in Boston that loses its no-talent, faded star of a leading lady after she is murdered during the opening night curtain call. Lt. Frank Cioffi arrives to lead the investigation and proceeds to sequester the entire cast and crew in the theatre until he solves the crime. Secrets and apparent motives abound as the theatre buff detective becomes as involved in the desperate, last-minute reworking of the production as he does in solving the crime. The idea that the hard-boiled policeman knows as much about musical theatre as he does criminology is the one truly original conceit contained in the book, and it is a slender thread that keeps the remainder of the book from drifting into indifference. The saving grace is that the script is a pretty good satire, even if much of it seems borrowed from other shows.
So that is where the skill and energy of this production become so important. Director John R. Leffert always draws talent and has a good eye for how to use it to best advantage. Pete Lay makes a strong impression as Lt. Cioffi, exhibiting boyish enthusiasm for being plunged into the world of theatre, relishing his dream come true but still keeping just enough focus on the job at hand of finding the murderer. Mera Kathryn Corlett is charming and funny as Niki, the understudy of the deceased star who has an unfortunate knack for getting her fingerprints on key pieces of evidence. Lauren Maxwell is a glamorous presence as one-half of the songwriting team that has penned the tunes, and exhibits perhaps the best vocal performance of the evening. Jeremy Moon was also in fine voice as her partner and ex-flame, as was Andy Epstein as the chief financial backer, Oscar Shapiro. Rachel Hafell handled the role of Bambi “Bernet” in fine style, with some good energy and timing. She was a tall, leggy presence given a dance showpiece in the second act that made an impression, even if it seemed at times to struggle just a bit to reach its full effect. This was a show that attempted some ambitious choreography by Valerie Hopkins and pulls it off fairly well, although it probably needs a tad more rehearsal to achieve the knock-out punch it strives for.
Then there is Jason Cooper and Carol Dines. I cannot honestly say that what they achieved was extraordinary, but there is discipline required in swinging for the fences and then reining things in to just the right degree. And their work is emblematic of the fine balance, achieved by so many in this cast but best represented by these two veterans, that is necessary with such tricky material. So many details, from the way Mr. Cooper delivers double-takes and asides to the audience and at one key moment adjusts his shiny blonde toupee, or the forthright stance and borsht-belt timing that Ms. Dines exhibits throughout, seem just right. And she also knows how to belt out a tune.
There is a pretty good score by the legendary songwriting team of John Kander Lyrics and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret, New York New York), with some work from Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Say Goodnight Gracie) after Ebb died. It cannot match their greatest work, but still provides some memorable tunes and clever lyrics. “Show People” may be the best of the lot, although it might be seen as a pale pastiche of “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” but “Coffee Shop Nights” is a more intriguing and original evocation of the lonely side of a life in the theatre. “What Kind of Man?” hilariously questions the integrity of anyone who chooses to review theatre and makes this reviewer wonder if every songwriter who has ever been panned by a reviewer has such a revenge-minded piece of material locked away in their imagination. The able orchestra, under the direction of Angie Hopperton, rendered the musical accompaniment with professionalism, in arrangements that made particularly expressive use of the woodwinds.
The opening night was dogged by a sense that the production was just shy of being finished, with a few technical items such as costume and make-up malfunctions that actually have nothing to do with the quality of work on display; and the design of sets, costumes and lighting were up to their usual high CenterStage standards. The tight rehearsal period was acknowledged by director Leffert in his curtain speech in an open nod to the certainty of being mentioned in a review. Perhaps it was unwise of Mr. Leffert to conjure such an image for opening night critics, but I mention it here to make this point: such things may seem distracting, but they are not the meat of any production, and only seem important when there is little of worth onstage to otherwise discuss, a problem this production certainly does not have. This reviewer was easily engaged and certainly well entertained, despite any opening night hang-ups. I am confident Curtains will gain its final polish and continue to please audiences throughout its run.   
March 15 – April 1, 2012
JCC CenterStage
Linker Auditorium
3600 Dutchmans Lane
Louisville, KY 40205