Part-time traveller, Full-Time Brummie

Theatre Review: Curtains

Is it a musical? Is it a murder mystery? Curtains is billed as a “musical whodunnit”, and this show includes all the typical clichés you expect to find in both genres. I confess to not knowing about this show before receiving a Press Night invite, but as it’s by the creators of Chicago and Cabaret – John Kander and Fred Ebb – expectations are set sky high.

Did you know that when the show opened on Broadway in 2006, the lead role was played by Niles from Frasier?

In this current production, Jason Manford takes on the lead role of Lieutenant Frank Cioffi. Manford is better known for his stand up comedy and panel show appearances than his musical theatre CV. But he more than holds his own in a talented ensemble.

Curtains is set in the late 1950s in Boston. It’s opening night of wild-west musical Robbin’ Hood. The writers and director are hopeful that this will lead a to a Broadway transfer. Except the show is terrible. The critics are having a field day. And the talentless leading lady Jessica Cranshaw (Nia Jermin) suffers the ignominy of dying both on-stage and off.

“Jessica was part of our company and now we part company”

With the entire cast suddenly potential murder suspects – or potential victims – Lieutenant Cioffi arrives to investigate. But this Columbo-style detective has a penchant for musical theatre, and is more interested in helping this ailing production than solving the case.

Curtains gives us a mischievous glimpse of back-stage theatre and is a tongue-in-cheek send-up of those preening luvvies that take themselves and “their art” uber seriously. As well as the murder investigation, there’re love triangles, betrayals, blackmail and family feuds, all played against a theatre backdrop. Of course, Cioffi solves the crime, fixes the show and gets a love interest.

The humour is dark and witty, and often clever jokes ripple through the auditorium as the audience grasp it at different times. The cast are enthusiastic and work incredibly hard but some of the musical numbers are a little over-long and don’t seem particularly necessary for furthering the narrative. However the songs that did stand out for me were “The Woman’s Dead” a dark, cheeky lament after Cranshaw’s death, “Show People” which brought to mind numbers from Kander & Ebb’s Cabaret, and “He Did It” the cast trying to figure out the murderer themselves. And “What Kind of Man,” is a sly dig at the heartless critics slating the show. Like reviewers gathering on Press Night…

“You never know who might be in the audience”

Manford is warm and likeable as the bumbling detective who dabbles in musical theatre. He has surprisingly decent vocals, and follows the choreography well although he’s clearly more comfortable joking than jiving. Carley Stenson shines as Georgia Hendriks, one of the show’s writers and an aspiring actress. She has a lovely rich singing voice, and great chemistry with Andy Coxon who plays her ex-husband Aaron Fox.

There are two standout performances on the night though. The cynical and prickly producer Carmen Bernstein, played by Rebecca Lock. And the outrageously hammy director Christopher Belling, played by Samuel Holmes. Lock is flawless in singing, acting and choreography, and Holmes delivers witty one-liners and sharp in-jokes a la Basil Fawlty. My only complaint is that we don’t see enough of him.

It’s an effervescent production by Paul Foster, with a fine ensemble cast.  Alistair David’s choreography is slick, and there is a talented band, led by musical supervisor Sarah Travis and musical director Alex Beetschen. The set, designed by David Woodhead, is a clever mix of glamour and grime, depending on whether you’re front of stage or backstage.

“We’re a special kind of people known as show people”

There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, unsophisticated innuendoes and jokes about death. At a 140 minutes it’s a little long; losing an unnecessary song or two in the second act could make this a much slicker production.

Curtains isn’t necessarily a must-see, but it’s an entertaining and fun old-fashioned musical comedy.

Curtains the Musical runs at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham until 9th November 2019 – you can buy tickets here – and continues its UK tour until April 2020.

Production Photos by The Other Richard

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