SALT LAKE CITY — Billed as, “A murder mystery that will give you something to sing about,” Rupert Holmes’s Curtains is the unique product of murder mystery and musical presented in a show-within-a-show format. Set in 1959 Boston, Curtains follows the cast and production staff as they open their Broadway-bound western adaptation of Robbin’ Hood. But when the leading lady is murdered during the curtain call, Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Max Huftalin) quarantines the cast and begins his murder investigation. An amateur actor himself, Lt. Cioffi manages to solve the mystery, fix a lackluster production number, and fall in love — all before the curtain closes.
Early on, as the production team tries to save “Robbin’ Hood,” the fictional show’s director Christopher Belling (Jared Thomson) suggests, “At this stage in the life of any musical, one should refrain from inventing anything brilliant, but simply eliminate all that’s god-awful.” Fortunately, under the direction of Jared Larkin, this Westminster Players production featured none of the latter. However, it unfortunately also contained little of the former. And while the show had its stand out moments, the overall lack of consistency prevented Curtains from ever rising.
The inconsistency of the production was immediately apparent in the contrast between the classic Broadway feel of John Kander‘s music and the occasionally crass dialogue prevalent in both the book and lyrics (Fred Ebb). In particular, producer Carmen Berstein’s (Mandi Titcomb) frequent descriptions of her husband’s physical inadequacies seemed incongruent with sweet songs like “Coffee Shop Nights.” One consistent factor, however, was a tendency toward the simplistic. Kander’s melodies were simple and repetitive featuring few opportunities for harmony, matching Ebb’s predictably monosyllabic rhymes.
Another inconsistency appeared with sets designed by Nina Vought. Much of the show was performed on an open stage meant to portray the backstage area. This large open area lent a dance concert feel to many of the production’s numbers. But when the cast was “onstage” performing “Robbin’ Hood,” the sets were often elaborate. Particularly impressive were the large set of double stairs used in the saloon sequence, “Thataway!” and a moving steamboat reserved for the final rendition of “In the Same Boat.” And as Lt. Cioffi and Niki Harris (Amanda Maylett) dreamed of “A Tough Act to Follow,” the curtains opened to reveal a beautiful set of wide, marbled stairs. It was apparent that the resources existed to develop appropriate scenery for Robbin’ Hood. I only wished some of those resources had been allocated to designing and building a set to represent the chaos found backstage.
Even the two acts of Curtains sat in contrast to each other. Act I featured large amounts of character development, introducing ex-lovers and ex-writing duo Georgia Hendricks (played by Anne Brings) and Aaron Fox (Wyatt McNeil), producer Berstein with her cheating husband Sidney (Jacek Sarnecki) and ambitious daughter Bambi (Natale McAnaneny), and the production staff including director Belling and stage manager Jenny Harmon (Hailey Henderson). With a handful of subplots to introduce, the act included several slower numbers such as “Thinking of Him,” “Coffee Shop Nights,” and “I Miss the Music.” Interspersed were production numbers from Robbin’ Hood, seemingly included as a way to include a variety of musical styles rather than of a real necessity to advance the plot. But in Act II, the pace livened and more of the songs related to the advancing plot. The company number “He Did It” was my favorite in the entire show, and the energy created with its clever lyrics and Ashley Carlson‘s equally clever choreography continued through the end of the production.
Inconsistency aside, each of the actors delivered a solid performance and moved seamlessly from dialogue to lyrics, using the songs as an additional way to expose character, rather than as an opportunity to deliver a vocal concert. In particular, Huftalin brought a laid-back ease to his character that made his deadpan comedy believable and endearing. My favorite moments included Cioffi baiting the cast into thinking he was saying something about the murders when in reality he was passionately working on the show. His delivery alluded to the melodramatic without ever completely crossing that line. In fact, the entire show had a borderline melodramatic flair, providing the perfect backdrop for comedy. Titcomb’s innuendo laden one-liners were timed perfectly to get a simultaneous gasp and chuckle, and Harris played off her evidence-holding happenstance with a delicate balance of subtlety and directness. Physical comedy was supported in the choreography as actors rushed to and from their final positions of “Thataway!” each time the curtain rose and fell. And having Cioffi jump into Harris’s arms during their joint dream sequence was a perfectly executed choice that got the laugh while developing character.
The most entertaining moments came in the form of the Robbin’ Hood production numbers. Staged with full costumes (Vought) and energetic choreography, the play-within-the-play frequently stole the show. The entire ensemble danced very well, andI was particularly impressed with the uniform height of the straight-legged kicks of the female ensemble and by the synchronicity of the men’s toe touches in “Show People.” And Tyson Olcott (playing Bobby Bennet) had a great tumbling sequence that caught me as much off-guard as each of the show’s gunshots.
Considering the vocal strength of the company, the comedic opportunities, and the great production numbers, it’s surprising to have left the theater somewhat unsatisfied. But Ben Brantley of The New York Times said it best when he reviewed the show’s Broadway opening: “Curtains lies on the stage like a promisingly gaudy string of firecrackers, waiting in vain for that vital, necessary spark to set it off.” Stated simply, this production offered all the firecrackers and no spark. But $10 isn’t much to pay for all those firecrackers. Curtains is lively and endearing (and occasionally dirty), and it would make for a great night out. Grab a date or a group of friends and head out to Westminster’s Courage Theatre for an evening of music, mystery, and plenty of laughs.