Review - Curtains starring Jason Manford at Wyndham's Theatre
Broadway has sent us a lot of great shows this year, including direct transfers for Come from Away, Waitress and Dear Evan Hansen, in replica productions recreated by their original creative teams. We've also seen superb, all-new new British stagings of more offbeat Broadway titles like Falsettos, Amour and Amélie, not to forgot (though I'd rather do so) an almost entirely unnecessary revival of The Man of La Mancha.
Now as a late entry, just under the wire for the Christmas season only, a production of Kander and Ebb's 2007 Broadway murder mystery musical Curtains is belatedly (and only briefly) getting its West End debut at the Wyndham's Theatre, parachuted in as a five-week filler after the premature closure of the comedy thriller The Man in the White Suit, in a hiatus from its current UK national tour.
And just as the newly released film version of Cats is using extensive CGI technology to make a transition from stage to screen that is meeting with resistance in some quarters for creating a jarring break between the realism of cinema and the suspension of reality that we welcome in the theatre, here's a refreshing reminder of a purely theatrical musical that belongs to and is entirely about the theatre in all its sometimes gruelling and painful, 'let's-put-on-a-show' glory that has previously informed hits from Kiss Me, Kate to The Producers.
Not that Curtains is quite in their league of sustained musical and comic bliss, but it's a pretty warm-hearted and generous slice of in-the-know musical theatre heaven nonetheless. Part of the layered poignance is actually being able to see it at all, as two of its three principal writing creators died long ahead of its eventual premiere -- original book writer Peter Stone died in 2003 (with his duties completed by Rupert Holmes), while composer John Kander's long-time lyricist writing partner passed in 2004 (so his work was completed by Kander and Holmes, including the wrenchingly personal pair of songs 'Thinking of Him/I Miss the Music').
But let's not detail ourselves with the sadness of those circumstances, but merely embrace the gratitude of what has been so joyfully created. As always with Kander and Ebb -- whose ground-breaking smash hits included Chicago and Cabaret, but whose lesser-known works like The Rink, The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit (the latter two of which were also originally produced long after Ebb's passing) also exemplified a keen playfulness with form -- the musical is an audacious riff on theatrical practice and structure itself, as we watch the Boston try-out of a new Broadway-bound version of Robin Hood that is floundering badly. (There was, coincidentally, though not mentioned here, a big precedent for Robin Hood to be turned into a disastrous stage musical: in 1965 Lionel Bart wrote Twang!! based on it, which closed quickly at the Shaftesbury Theatre after just over a month's run. As the most expensive flop in West End history up until then, it famously cost Bart his personal fortune that he sank into it try to keep it running).
And then, as if trying to put on a musical isn't enough of a trial, one by one, members of the company -- starting with the leading lady, then co-producer Sidney Bernstein, then the stage manager -- are successively murdered onstage.
Not one but two show 'doctors' are on hand with their informal suggestions to the British director Christopher Belling (a hilariously over-the-top Samuel Holmes) on how to fix the show: Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a detective from the Boston police department, who as well as investigating the murders is a keen show fan who seems to know what fixes are needed; as played by TV and stage comedian Jason Manford, he's a highly engaging, warm-hearted presence with the best of intentions. Then there's also the Boston Globe theatre critic Daryl Grady, played by the appropriately smarmy Adam Rhys-Charles, who has become romantically infatuated with one of the leading ladies and has his own reasons for wanting the show to succeed.... or not. (The show also contains the ultimate put-down of critics in song, which utterly endeared it to me: "What kind of man would take a job like that? / What kind of slob would take a job like that?/ Who could be mean enough/ Base and obscene enough/ To take a job like that?"
To say more would be to spoil the rolling pleasures of this endlessly witty and rigorously well-plotted show, and its hilarious parade of pastiche songs. They are put over with various degrees of fervour, grit and glamour by an ensemble that also includes Carley Stenson and Andy Coxon as the show's co-authors (with the former also standing in as replacement star for the dead leading lady), investor Oscar Shapiro (Martin Callaghan) and co-producer Carmen Bernstein (Rebecca Lock).
I thoroughly adored this most knowing of Broadway musicals, delightfully directed by Paul Foster and energetically choreographed by Alistair David. It deserves another lengthier return to the West End after its national tour.
Curtains tickets are available now.
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