Updated: May 26, 2021
John Kander, Fred Ebb and Rupert Holmes
Dan Looney, Adam Paulden and Jason Haigh-Ellery for DLAP Entertainment
Palace Theatre, Manchester
8 Oct - 12 Oct 2019: 2hr 50min
All at sea - the cast of Curtains in a scene-within-a-scene. All pictures: Richard Davenport
A musical whodunnit? – that’s a puzzle, for a start. One reason why Kander and Ebb’s last work seems to have had mixed fortunes since its birth in 2006 could be that we expect musicals to have simple, sellable ideas.
This one is sui generis – a one-off: a show-within-a-show story that combines pastiche of a 1940s musical with the twists and turns of a gum-shoe detective story. And in this production it’s brilliant.
Distance lends perspective. John Kander and Fred Ebb had given the world Funny Girl, New York, New York, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Chicago and Cabaret, but perhaps no one was quite prepared for the intricately woven texture of Curtains. One view of the first UK version was that there was ‘"too much going on". Ebb never saw it performed: his death, leaving behind him a show about theatre people getting murdered, may even have cast a psychological shadow which only time can erase.
But in this new production, directed by Paul Foster, the storyline is clear, the combination of spoof and affectionate tribute to the musicals of a former era is lovingly realised, the comedy crackles and the music hits the spot. The casting is almost ideal, too.
Granted it lacks a big plot twist or conflict – the situations are themselves musical comedy pastiches, such as the once-in-love creative partnership that fell apart and could yet be reconciled, the on-the-road musical that’s got problems but might just make it to Broadway, the girl from the chorus who’s really talented but might make it just given a chance; the dawn of love between unlikely people. But those are part of the endearment of it all, and when members of the theatre company start getting murdered and a modestly-attired detective turns up to solve the crime Columbo-style, another layer is skilfully added. That the cop is also a starry-eyed amateur actor, and there’s a nasty Boston Globe theatre critic mixed up in it, just adds to the fun.
Granted, too, that it lacks a big hit tune – but every number is a smart, sophisticated exercise in imitation of the hits of yesteryear. The opening number, ‘Wide Open Spaces’, in its first appearance, cheekily spoofs the score of Oklahoma! (and others like it), with its climactic, rising scales, an entire seven-note refrain taken from 'Oh What a Beautiful Morning', and its letters-spelled-out coda phrase. (It’s re-written, more inventively, for a reprise later, which is all part of the story). There's also a splendid send-up of the kind of chorus piece that combines two different melodies to the same rhythm and chord sequence, with 'In the Same Boat' - allegedly a last-minute re-write that gets combined with its original.
There are two great male roles. Jason Manford is excellent as the sleuthing Lieutenant Cioffi, with more than a bit of debt to Peter Falk (they hide his feet with haze in the scene where he’s supposed to learn to dance – presumably for good reasons); Samuel Holmes is very funny as Christopher Belling, the inside-show’s sarcastic, self-opinionated English director.
Carley Stenson deserves her star billing as the heroine, Georgia, and Ore Oduba, though a modest vocalist, comes over as his likeable self as her still-in-love ex, Aaron.
There’s a strong cast throughout in other roles: Rebecca Lock can belt out her numbers like the best of ’em, and, on behalf of the ‘noble profession of theatrical journalism’ (as Lieut. Cioffi calls it) I can say that Adam Rhys-Charles has all the virtues of the drama critic (and of course I won’t give away who actually dunnit – this is like The Mousetrap and we should all be sworn to secrecy).