Show biz whodunnit ‘Curtains’ a sheer delight at Music Mountain Theatre in Lambertville

Photo: Kasey Ivan Photography

By John Dwyer

I am a big fan of “Curtains,” and saw it with my better half a couple of times when it was on Broadway back in 2007.

There is much to recommend when talking about this show, which was the last of John Kander and Fred Ebb. “Scottsboro Boys” was written before and produced after “Curtains.” Ironically, and with a bit of foreboding, both the initial book writer Peter Stone in April 2003 and the lyricist Fred Ebb in September 2004 passed away while working on the show, which itself is about death, as it is a murder mystery/musical comedy. Rupert Holmes came along and rewrote the book. He also worked with Kander on additional songs.

The play is set in 1959 at the Colonial Theater in Boston, where the new musical comedy “Robin Hood” has opened. It takes the well known story of Robin and his Merry Men and places it in the Old West.

“Curtains” is delightful, as it gives you a backstage view of what it takes to mount a show and, in particular, the courage and excitement to give birth to a brand new musical. We meet the producers, the writing team, the cast and the critic. Carmen Bernstein is the executive producer. She is brash and full of moxie and knows that show business is business. She is married to Sydney. The main angel for the show is Oscar Shapiro. The song writing team is Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks. They are top notch. Despite a previous failed marriage, they still make beautiful music together, but only literally. And then there is the cast of “Robin Hood.”

Photo: Kasey Ivan Photography

“Curtains” opens with the finale of “Robin Hood” being performed on opening night, and it is apparent that there is a big problem. The show’s female lead of Maid Marian, played by aging Hollywood movie star Jessica Cranshaw, can’t carry a tune in a wooden bucket. She also can’t dance or act. In other words, she’s a hot mess. Robin Hood is played by Bobby Pepper. In this revision, Robin marries the local schoolmarm, Miss Nancy, played by Niki Harris.

When Miss Cranshaw is taking her bows that night, she collapses after the curtain goes down. Later, the reviews come in and they are, with one exception, terrible. The show’s director, flamboyant Brit Christopher Belling, asks songwriter Georgia Hendricks to go over Maid Marian’s opening number. When she does, it becomes evident to Belling that Georgia should be starring in the show. This sets off her ex-husband/co-writer Aaron, who believes she always wanted to do the show because Bobby Pepper is starring in it — Georgia had been Bobby’s girlfriend at one time. But the idea of Georgia has upset some of the cast, as usually the understudies would step into the role if the star quits or is fired. Niki would go from playing Nancy to Maid Marian and Bambi, a chorus girl, would get promoted to playing Nancy.

And at this point, we learn that leading lady Jessica did not just collapse from exhaustion — she died. And what’s more, she did not just die. She was murdered. The critics may have killed the show, but someone killed the leading lady.

Enter Detective Lieutenant Frank Cioffi from Boston’s finest. Frank is not only a detective, but also a musical theater buff, who has long had an itch to perform, but never has seized the opportunity. The rest of the show revolves around the relationships between producers, creative team, cast and crew and whodunit.

Knowing the show, for me it was simple deduction that the lead of Detective Lieutenant Frank Cioffi would likely be played by Louis Palena. It seemed logical, as he types for it and, as I thought, would be extremely wonderful in the role. The lieutenant sings and dances but, more than anything else, exudes a love of the theater that, though he is a mere sleuth, is second to none. Palena, one of the artistic directors, is believable in the role as his love of theater is second to none, as well. A really wonderful performance by the talented Palena.

The rest of the cast is filled with Music Mountain regulars, so it doesn’t take a detective to know that the show is well done all around. Recidivism: the definition of which, as Detective Cioffi would know, is “the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend” But rather than offend, these members of the cast continue to delight show after show.

Anna Hentz nails the hard-as-nails, show biz dynamo producer Carmen Bernstein. Particularly enjoyable are songs about the theater itself, and she is the linchpin for the paeans to the profession. “What Kind of Man” bewails the power of the critic, who can raise up or bury all their hard work. “It’s a Business” explains that it is not just about art, but about making a dollar and making a living. And finally, “Show People,” extols the special kind of person who walks the walk and makes theater a living. These songs, in and of themselves, are enough reason buy a ticket and see this show. They are witty and funny, and Hentz delivers them with true showmanship, taking center stage and selling them for all their worth.

Photo: Kasey Ivan Photography

I had to look at my program twice to see that the songwriter Georgia Hendricks was regular Jill Palena. She gave a heartfelt performance, and her song “Thinking of Him” was lovely.

Few voices can compare to Gigi Gibilisco’s. Give him a phone book and, yes, I would pay to listen to him sing it. Both in “Godspell” from last season and here, he gets to play the piano. He is a good actor as well, and as Aaron Fox the audience is rooting for him to get back with his ex-wife Georgia. His “I Miss the Music” is beautifully done

Lauren Brader is chameleon like and is an actress who I am always interested to see work. She was extraordinary in past work at Music Mountain such as Pontius Pilate in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and Mrs. Penmark in “The Bad Seed.” As murder victim Jessica Chastain, she has made big choices and is hysterical as the tone deaf Hollywood diva.

Amanda Torsilieri is excellent as Bambi Bernet. Her dance solo in “Kansasland” is incredible. It requires an athleticism few dancers possess. Her kicks and somersault were worthy of a true acrobat/gymnast/dancer. Is there a word for that?

The following cast members are up on multiple charges of being continually good, and that includes the talented Jaime Geddes as Niki, who is a suspect and the detective’s love interest, Matt Robertson as Bobby Pepper, the handsome song and dance man, David Whiteman as the witty, camp English director Christopher Belling, Eddie Honan as the show’s investor Oscar Shapiro, Rhett Commodaro as the acerbic theater critic, Daryl Grady who can make or beak a show, Roger Madding as co-producer and Carmen’s beleaguered husband, Sydney Bernstein, and the always dependably watchable Tim Chastain as Johnny Harmon, the stage manager.

Michael Moeller did a great job directing this show. He has a real talent in his utilization of spaces with a large cast and multiple scene changes. One critique, however: both in “Oklahoma” and in “Curtains,” I would have had my actresses playing Ado Annie in the former and Jessica Chastain in the latter, scale down their performances. Laughs would have been given up, but it would have been better for the overall story line.

“Curtains” is a special show. An ingenious whodunnit and a must see for musical theater lovers who want to experience the last show Fred Ebb was working on before his untimely passing. There are only a few memorable songwriting teams for the Broadway stage, and Kander and Ebb are one of them. This ensemble show by the area’s best ensemble lives up to the show’s lyrics: “It’s and honor and a joy to be in show business, I feel that spotlight hit me and I’m gone. At the last curtain call, I’m the envy of all, so I know the show must go on.”

Bravo to show and cast and Music Mountain Theatre.

The show continues through Oct. 21, and tickets can be purchased online.

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