There have been so many musicals that spoof musicals in recent years (Spamalot being the premiere example) that one occasionally longs for a musical that’s just a musical. Still, Curtains, now at CSU Summer Stages, has a promising premise. But this leaden production, weighted down by an egregious orchestra, never takes flight as it should.
On the cusp of the 1960s, a professional theater company is running the cowboy musical through its pre-Broadway Boston run. But during the curtain call, the no-talent star dies suddenly. Soon, detective Cioffi shows up to interrogate the cast, since it has been determined the woman’s demise was no accident. And he quarantines the cast in the theater until the case can be solved. Of course, he has a secondary agenda since he loves musicals and wants to get involved with the show.
With everyone looking at everyone else, suspicions run rampant as Carmen, the producer, tries to persuade lyricist Georgia to take over the lead, since Georgia was formerly a performer. This puts composer Aaron in a snit, since he was busy trying to hook up again with Georgia, his former honey.
There are all the usual theater people: the egotistic director Belling, the perky but overlooked understudy Niki, the romantic lead Bobby, and Carmen’s surly husband and co-producer Sid (a mugging Mark Seven).
With music and lyrics by the revered team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, there is certainly enough raw material to construct a sprightly evening. But director Michael Mauldin, a man possessing exquisite theatrical talents, here misses the boat.
The pace is agonizingly slow, with actors continually clomping up to punch lines with dread intent, leaning on each gag, and then waiting for laughs that often don’t come. Sure, the book by Rupert Holmes features a string of really hoary jokes, but they could work if handled more deftly. Over-the-top acting is fine when it’s done with a brisk and light touch, but it dies when squeezed in the iron grip of trying too hard
In the starring role, Tom Woodward has a nice, deferential style as Cioffi, but we never really feel his bone-deep passion for musicals. And his singing voice has a narrow bandwidth. Ursula Cataan does what she can as Georgia, gamely working her way through the pleasant ballad “Thinking of Him.” As Carmen, Jean Kauffman has the perfect look and the ideal sneer/pout of a producer, but she strangles most of her laugh lines to death.
George Roth survives as Belling by doing a vocal mash-up of Mr. Darling and Captain Hook from Peter Pan, and Derek Davidson’s Aaron is mild but believable. Nick Pancuk and Jessica Dyer also acquit themselves well as, respectively, Bobby and Niki.
If there’s one rule for musicals, it is that the orchestra—like umpires in baseball—should never make their presence known. But the well-attired musicians under the direction of John Krol are all too omnipresent. Laboring to land on the right notes, they butcher more than one tune. And Krol pounds a fuzzy-sounding piano that has the audio clarity of a Playskool keyboard that was left out in the rain. And then run over by a truck. Sympathies go out to all the singers.
At a running time approaching three hours, with intermission, Curtains is a long and only fitfully enjoyable journey to a tongue-in-cheek murder mystery solution.
Through August 8 at Cleveland State University
Summer Stages, CSU Factory Theatre, corner of
Chester and E. 23rd St., 216-687-2113