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Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - July 29, 2011

A must for musical fans

'Curtains' is Kander and Ebb's valentine to Broadway

by Kevin Kirby

Beginning with "Flora the Red Menace" in 1965 and ending with Ebb's death in 2004, composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb enjoyed one of the longest Broadway collaborations, producing such landmark musicals as "Cabaret" and "Chicago." Their simple song forms, innuendo-laced lyrics and penchant for gritty characters marked them more as descendants of Weil and Brecht than of Rodgers and Hammerstein.

It's interesting, then, that their final show, "Curtains" — currently playing at Foothill Music Theatre — is a fairly tender-hearted "Valentine to Broadway." Sure, the show is peppered with unsavory characters, salty lyrics and a dash of misanthropic wit. It is, after all, a whodunit in which more than one character meets a brutal end. But beneath all that lies a sweet tribute to the magic of Broadway.

Set in 1959, the story concerns a new musical, "Robbin' Hood," which has just opened for out-of-town tryouts in Boston, on its way to New York. This musical-within-the-musical is a corny Old West version of the Robin Hood legend; its anthem "Wide Open Spaces" is a thinly disguised riff on the title song from "Oklahoma!"

The musical's future seems uncertain after the Boston critics savage the show on opening night. To complicate matters, the show's leading lady, a talentless Hollywood diva named Jessica Cranshaw (played broadly if briefly by Reggie Reynolds), collapses during the curtain call and dies several hours later, victim of an inexplicable poisoning.

Enter Lt. Frank Cioffi of the Greater Boston Police Department. An amateur thespian, Cioffi is nearly giddy to find himself rubbing elbows with the "Robbin' Hood" cast and creative staff. As his murder investigation progresses, Cioffi seems more interested in fixing the musical's problem numbers than in catching the killer. (In the end, of course, he manages both.)

Actor Ryan Drummond makes his FMT debut as Cioffi, and it's hard to imagine a better actor for the role. Drummond's characterization is a marvel of understatement: Cioffi's childlike enthusiasm is utterly believable, and his humility is a welcome break from the grandiose self-involvement of the theater folk.

To keep Cioffi (and the audience) guessing, "Curtains" features a plethora of suspects, every one of them harboring some hostility toward Jessica Cranshaw. They include:

- Carmen Bernstein, the show's flinty producer, a sort of cross between Mama Morton and Mama Rose. Veteran Foothill choreographer Tyler Risk plays Carmen with a wink and a growl, soft-pedaling her harshest moments but still maintaining the requisite aura of menace.

- Carmen's husband Sidney (a too-quiet Jaime Martinez) and daughter Elaine, aka Bambi (Jordan Michele Kersten), a loud-mouthed aspiring dancer who can do no right in her mother's eyes.

- Beleaguered, effete, British director Chris Belling, portrayed in pitch-perfect style by Walter M. Mayes.

- The divorced songwriting team of Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks, reunited — professionally, at least — to create the "Robbin' Hood" score. The pair's ballads, "Thinking of Him" and "I Miss the Music," may not be Kander and Ebb's best work, but actors Mike Rhone and Alicia Teeter deliver them beautifully.

- Niki Harris (a wide-eyed Katie Blodgett), the murdered woman's understudy, who captures Cioffi's heart despite the fact that her fingerprints seem to wind up on every scrap of evidence in the case.

- Bobby Pepper (Gary Stanford), the star of "Robbin' Hood" and Georgia's latest beau.

- Oscar Shapiro (Todd Wright), a financial backer who has begun to fear for his investment.

- Johnny Harmon (a no-nonsense Joe Colletti), the show's stage manager.

This truly is an ensemble piece — a tribute to the collaborative nature of musical theater — and the cast works together admirably. If a few of the performers seem a bit green, it doesn't matter. The group's enthusiasm is evident, and under the sure hand of director Jay Manley, it produces a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Certain numbers stand out, of course. "What Kind of Man," in which Carmen, Aaron, Georgia and Oscar lambast the Boston critics who have lambasted their premiere, provides the show's first delicious pinch of Kander and Ebb strychnine, drawing the audience immediately into the backstage fold. Risk (Carmen) has a second hit on her hands with "It's a Business," in which Carmen expounds on the pragmatic side of their artistic endeavor, backed by a delightful chorus of stage hands and seamstresses.

The Act 2 opener, "He Did It," is a tightly written exercise in creeping paranoia, and the staging — amazing what you can do with blankets and flashlights — is as effective as it is minimal. And "In the Same Boat," a ditzy vaudeville pastiche from "Robbin' Hood" that Cioffi encourages Aaron to rewrite time and again, pays off beautifully when it finally comes together late in the second act. Everyone, Cioffi included, joins in for the creation of a song-and-dance extravaganza that exceeds one's expectations for the space-constrained Foothill production.

Over the years, Manley has proven himself adept at staging large-scale Broadway musicals in small venues, without losing the expansive feel of the original. It's a skill that serves him well here, as the large Smithwick Theatre (the usual home of FMTs summer productions) is undergoing seismic retrofitting, forcing "Curtains" into the lovely but much smaller Lohman Theatre.

Together with choreographer Dottie Lester-White, Manley has created a show that feels much bigger than the space it inhabits. The cast of 30-plus never seem crowded on the stage, assembling and scattering with no hint of traffic congestion. The dance numbers never feel "scaled back" and deliver plenty of punch.

The Lohman venue does, however, pose a couple of challenges that are only partially met. Hidden somewhere behind the set, Mark Hanson's five-piece combo does a decent job of covering the old-style Broadway accompaniments (originally scored for two dozen instruments), but the synthesized horns can be distractingly cheesy at times.

Scenic designer Joe Ragey gives the stage a sense of faded glory with a faux proscenium and a red main curtain that rises and falls for "Robbin' Hood" rehearsals and performances. However, with limited upstage space, he relies on projections to suggest the "Robbin' Hood" sets. This approach, sadly, fails to create the feel of a Broadway-bound 1959 production.

But the strengths of FMT's "Curtains" far outweigh its few shortcomings, just as Kander and Ebb's songs — a few of which might seem tired or derivative if taken out of context — are the perfect complement to the nonstop laughs of the script. "Curtains" is a must, not just for Kander and Ebb fans, but for anyone with a soft spot for the Broadway musical.

What: The musical "Curtains," presented by Foothill Music Theatre

Where: Lohman Theatre at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills

When: Through Aug. 14, with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (except for July 31, which has a 7 p.m. show)

Cost: Tickets are $26 general, $24 for seniors, $20 for non-Foothill students, $13 for Foothill students and staff, and $10 for kids under 12.

Info: Go to http://foothillmusicals.com or call 650-949-7360.

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