The Walnut Theatre, America's oldest, celebrating its 202nd season, opens with a musical “Whodunit”, Kander & Ebb's 'Curtains'. Set in 1959, it is a musical comedy send-up of backstage murder mystery plots. The story follows the fallout when the supremely untalented star of 'Robbin' Hood of the Old West' is murdered during the opening night curtain call. It is up to a police detective who moonlights as a community musical theatre fan to save the show, solve the case and fall in love, within being killed himself.
It's musical ancestry is flawless. Kander & Ebb wrote 'Chicago', 'Cabaret', 'Kiss of the Spider Woman' and many more. Their iconic stature is also linked to Liza Minnelli, whose luminous career began in 1965 with the first collaboration between the lyricist and composer in “Flora The Red Menace'. As we know, that proceeded quite well.
'Curtains' had a brief career on Broadway until its curtain was lowered.
The Walnut's 'execution' of the production is flawless. The sets, costumes, direction and choreography are superb and abundant with Broadway glitz. The actors have Equity credentials and have glorious voices.
The leading female character Carmen Bernstein (Denise Whelan) has Broadway pipes second only to Ethel Merman, with comic timing to match. Her marriage to philandering husband Sidney (Fran Prisco) is the subject of the evening's funniest double entendres. When Sidney is found hanging by a noose backstage, Carmen spouts, “Well, that's the first time he was ever accused of being hung!” A moment before Jessica Cranshaw's (Anne Connors) demise which begins the intrigue, she says to her leading man, “There was this crazy guy in the front row waving his arms at me.”. He responds, “Jessica, that was the conductor!”
The problem with the show itself is that it is uneven and not well integrated. There are numbers that don't work or move the plot forward. The production number to end Act I “Thataway” comes to mind. It's as if the musical and writing crew interpolated tunes from their extensive trunk of previous tunes and inserted it in.
A 'send-up' implies back stage theatre jokes or homage to past musicals. There are some corny jokes and even a fantasy dance sequence that Aisle Say considered to be inspired by the Ascot scene in 'My Fair Lady' or the dream sequence in 'Oklahoma'. They worked in those productions. Not so much here.
That is not to say the cast was not supremely talented. Lyricist for 'Robbin Hood' Aaron Fox (Jeffrey Coon) displays a beatific lyric tenor in the tune “I Miss The Music”. Detective Frank Cioffi (David Hess) sings a stylized classic Herald Square/Great White Way tune with “Coffee Shop Nights”. There is even a discussion that hearkens back to the old question, which comes first, music or lyrics. (Aisle Say says music!)
The show has its many moments, though. For a theatre junkie like myself, there is even a nod to addicts like us...“show people are dreamers”. Director/Choreographer Richard Stafford has that precious belief in his veins and fulfilled his mission.
The Walnut audience is always packed. Their marketing in this economy is superlative. They are Broadway in Philadelphia sans Broadway prices.
Til October 25. WalnutStreetTheatre.org 215.574.3550