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Dying on stage

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater premiers Curtains

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


As recent Broadway musical comedies go, Curtains may not be as household a name as, say, The Producers, but it comes with an impressive pedigree — much of the music is from the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the same duo that gave musical theater Chicago and Cabaret, among many others.

But Curtains is far more recent than either of the two other Ebb and Kander classics. It made its debut in 2006, eventually earning a Tony for Best Musical Comedy in 2007 and a Best Actor Tony for its star, David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame. Fred Ebb died in 2003 before the show was finished; John Stone, who wrote the book on which Curtains is based, also died in 2003, and his material was reworked by Rupert Holmes. And yes, that’s the same Rupert Holmes that did “The Pina Colada” song in 1979; he’s been involved in a lot of award-winning theater projects since then, including Drood (which earned a few Tonys).

So Curtains may not be a name musical yet, but it has all the makings of one, according to Harvey Cocks, who is guest directing the Fort Wayne Civic Theater’s production of the musical during Youtheatre’s summer break. “The music is beautiful, and it’s a very funny play,” Cocks says, adding, “I think it’s one of the few murder mystery musicals ever written.”

Curtains is actually more of a take off on murder mysteries than an actual murder mystery. But much like The Producers, Curtains is simultaneously a send-up of the theater world and show business people, and a sort of “throwback” to the classic Broadway musical era. Mick Long, who plays the pompous British director Christopher Belling, says the songs in Curtains are very much in the style of the classics. “They are very ‘old style’ Broadway tunes,” he says. “It’s not Rent. It’s like the old standards but new, and very well written.”

Or, as Maeghan Looney, who plays ingénue Nikki Harris, puts it when talking about her favorite song “Show People”: “It is good-old-fashioned, classy Broadway. It’s what every musical theater person’s dream is. You can really use those ‘jazz hands’.”

In Curtains, it’s 1959 and a theater company is debuting a new musical called “Robbin’ Hood of the Old West” (you can pretty much guess what it’s about) starring Jessica Cranshaw (Mary Alberding), a former Hollywood actress trying to revive her career.

The show’s producers are banking on Cranshaw’s name to turn the show into a hit. But Cranshaw can neither sing nor dance, and frankly, isn’t much of an actress. The show is savaged by the local Boston papers, sending producers Carmen Bernstein (Maggie Kole Hunter) and Oscar Shapiro (Kirby Volz), composers Aaron Fox (Nathan Smith) and Georgia Hendricks (Andrea Krider), and director Belling into a panic.

Yet they have bigger things to worry about — Cranshaw is murdered shortly after the performance, and Lt. Frank Coffi (William Dawson) of the Boston police department believes the circumstances of her death point to one of the members of the cast as the culprit. Coffi is an amateur actor himself (he thought “Robbin Hood” was great), and is thrilled to be assigned to this case because he gets to work with theater people. “He loves his job and he’s very good at it, but he has this passion for theater,” says actor William Dawson. He says one of his favorite lines as Coffi is a little cheesy, but seems to sum up Coffi’s character. “He says ‘putting on a musical has got to be the most fulfilling thing a person could ever hope to do…’ But there’s so many funny scenes and great lines in the show that it’s hard to pick just one.”

Since there might be a murderer among them, Coffi sequesters the cast. It isn’t long, though, before Coffi starts offering his own suggestions on how to change “Robbin’ Hood,” which doesn’t set well with the director. “Belling wants to appear as though he knows everything,” says Mick Long. “One of my favorite lines — one that encapsulates Belling’s character — is when he’s talking to a stagehand and says ‘Johnny, come help me watch you move the piano.’” Long adds that Belling admires the detective’s theater instincts, but is too pompous and too affected to admit it.”

Also, romantic sparks start to fly between Coffi and actress Nikki Harris. “She’s very much the ingénue,” says Maeghan Looney of her character. “She wears her heart on her sleeve, she’s naïve, she’s ambitious but in a very sweet way. She brings another side to the musical, because while everyone else is not afraid to hurt people, she still seems sweet.”

More complications ensue when co-producer Sydney Bernstein (Fred Krauskopf) is murdered, and paranoia sets in among the cast and crew — the killer might be coming after them next. Worse yet, someone might want to change their blocking.

While the story is pure farce and played strictly for laughs, Cocks says there is a little truth to the backstage machinations the play portrays. Cocks had a lengthy career as a stage actor in New York and other places in the 40s, 50s, and 60s (we did a story on his career in FWR #111). He saw when many Hollywood stars would try to revive their career by returning to the stage, sometimes with mixed results (but always with increased production costs for the show).

He also remembers the chaos and fear that ensued whenever those opening night reviews were not as generous as the producers had hoped. “When you’re in that position, it’s a frightening time, a hysterical time,” he says. “They’ll try all kinds of things until they come to their senses and really look at it and say ‘oh my God! This is exactly what we should have done right from the start’. But you can learn a dance, a song, a whole scene and work on it all day, come in the next morning and hear ‘forget everything you learned yesterday. We changed it’.”

One of the running gags in Curtains has the cast of “Robbin’ Hood” doing four different versions of the same song as the producers frantically try to “get it right.”

Though Curtains is more farcical and less edgy than Kander and Ebb’s two most famous works, there’s still a slight cynical tone to the play. “It’s not nearly as dark as Chicago, but that cynicism is there,” says Mark Long.

“I think Curtains definitely appeals to a wider audience, but yes, there’s some cynicism there,” adds Harvey Cocks. “Kander and Ebb were very mature writers. They had lived a little themselves by the time they made it really big, and it shows in plays like Chicago and Cabaret, and a little here.”

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents Curtains

Saturday, July 24 at 8:00 PM
Sunday, July 25 at 2:00 PM

Friday July 30 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, July 31 at 8:00 PM
Sunday August 1 at 2:00 PM

Friday August 6 at 8:00 PM
Saturday, August 7 at 8:00 PM
Sunday August 8 at 2:00 PM

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street
Tickets: $24/adults; $16/age 23 and under; $20/Sunday Senior Matinee

Box Office: 424-5220

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