Music: John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb
Book: Rupert Holmes
Director: Paul Foster
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
The team of composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb lies behind some of Broadway’s most enduring successes – Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and so on – all musicals with a sharp cutting edge. Curtains, on which Ebb had been working (with Kander) at the time of his death in 2004, centres around a murder, but its overriding tone is much gentler and more affectionate than that of those famous predecessors.
Curtains opened on Broadway in 2007 and ran for over a year, no doubt helped by the star power of Frasier’s David Hyde Pierce in the leading role of Police Lieutenant Frank Cioffi. Here, for the show’s West End debut, Jason Manford, best known as a stand-up comedian, takes over the role in Paul Foster’s production, which was intended for touring the United Kingdom, but has been given a short run at Wyndham’s Theatre, due to an early closure.
The plot could have been used in a routine episode of Murder She Wrote; not so much a whodunit? as a whocares?; happily, this is not the point. It all enfolds inside a theatre and the show within a show, a version of the Robin Hood legend transplanted to the Wild West, looks destined for even less success than Lionel Bart’s Twang! What matters is that Cioffi loves it, making a bid to take over from the hysterical British director, Christopher (Samuel Holmes) who learns that he is a murder suspect and declares: “it’s an honour just to be nominated”.
Rupert Holmes’ book wanders off course occasionally when struggling to negotiate the convoluted plot, but compensation comes with a flow of witty one-liners casting hefty swipes at all types of theatre people, including critics, chief among which is the dastardly Daryl Grady (Adam Rhys-Charles). When the dire leading lady is murdered while taking her bows on opening night in Boston, theatre mad Cioffi is called in to investigate. Suspects include the avaricious producer, Carmen (Rebecca Lock in show-stopping form), the lovestruck composer, Aaron (Andy Coxon) and one-time lyricist, now replacement leading lady, Georgia (Carley Stenson).
Manford enters, wearing trilby and raincoat, soon resembling a cross between a small boy let loose in a toy shop and a sleuth with the deductive powers of Inspector Clouseau. His comic timing can be taken for granted, but he also proves to be a decent singer who is unexpectedly light on his feet. Cioffi becomes part of one of the plot’s romantic strands, making sweet music with showgirl Niki (Leah Barbara West).
When it comes to musicals about theatre, Curtains is not quite up there with Kiss Me, Kate or Follies, but Kander and Ebb’s songs, all in traditional and slightly old-fashioned Broadway style, are far from disappointing and Foster highlights the show’s strengths to great effect. Show People has the familiarity of a standard, even though the musical is new here, the beautiful I Miss the Music is sung with emotional power by Coxon and Lock literally growls her way through the cynical It’s a Business.
Days, when a touring production may have felt an inferiority complex, are long gone and this one slots into the West End comfortably. Alistair David’s choreography and Alex Beetschen’s band never fall short, while the entire company shows the confidence and commitment to make the evening fun. As the curtain fell on Ebb’s career, it seems apt that he should have left behind this warm and humorous love letter to the art form which he graced for almost 40 years.
Runs until 11 January 2020 | Image: Richard Davenport