A musical whodunnit, penned by John Kander and Fred Ebb, the redoubtable team behind Cabaret and Chicago, and starring the likeable comedian Jason Manford who has come a long way from collecting glasses at Manchester’s Buzz comedy and music club, Curtains has, on the face of it, got a lot going for it.
But the quizzical, disappointed faces seen everywhere on opening night told a different story. Not many people were quite able to understand why the evening felt so flat, despite a show with a perfectly good premise, some decent songs (especially the irreverent ones), a few cracking jokes and, in various cases, more than respectable performances. Yet it still felt like a disjointed mess, unable to find a convincing, entertaining tone.
Perhaps there was a clue to be found in the programme where three pages are devoted to the Kander and Ebb partnership (fair enough), three pages examining the appeal of the whodunnit (well, okay) and even a whole page spent on Manford’s biog. And yet there was a perfunctory 26-word paragraph devoted to the show itself, grudgingly disclosing only that it was originally staged in Los Angeles in 2006 and transferred to Broadway the next year. If you’re interested, although its Broadway run was brief, it was respectable enough to win a Tony for its leading man David Hyde-Pierce (yes, Frasier’s brother Niles). However, it’s been rarely performed since. I’m no sleuth but a little bit of digging might throw some light on the mystery of why the show felt so indecisive and confounding.
It’s based on an original book and concept of the same name by Peter Stone (barely acknowledged in that pesky programme, but perhaps best known as a screenwriter for the mid-60s likes of Charade). When Stone died in April 2003, the book was left unfinished, and Rupert Holmes (yes, the Northwich-born perpetrator of the sublimely ridiculous hit Escape, much better known as The Piña Colada Song) was hired to rewrite it. Ebb also died before the musical was completed. So many hands don’t often make a show work but that’s almost a musical plot in itself, isn’t it? It’s certainly no worse than the set-up here, which is a broad send-up of backstage murder mystery plots, a bit like a Charles Paris radio recording but with songs and lots of nearly criminal mugging.
Set in 1959 Boston, it follows the fallout after Jessica Cranshaw, the supremely untalented star of Robbin’ Hood of the Old West (a show that looks very much like Oklahoma) is murdered during her opening night curtain call, before the show itself is slaughtered by theatre critics (dang them all). Enter, to the strains of a splendidly scurrilous tune called The Woman’s Dead, Police Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford) to solve the case, and maybe even find love before the show reopens, without getting killed himself. Not incidentally, Cioffi also dreams of being in musical theatre which is a bit of luck, as he finds himself mixing with a whole theatre full of deliberately clichéd theatrical characters. Getting the lion’s share of the good gags are the loud-mouthed, quiptastic producer Carmen Bernstein (Rebecca Lock), and the waspish and long-suffering (if you take his word for it) director Christopher Belling (Samuel Holmes). There’s also the squabbling, once-married show writers Georgia Hendricks (Carley Stenson) and Aaron Fox (TV and radio reporter Ore Oduba, who may have impressed the judges and audiences on Strictly Come Dancing but is woefully out of his depth here), as well as the pushy ingénue who styles herself ‘Bambi Bernet’ (Emma Caffrey). She turns out, of course, to have secrets of her own but so do practically all the cast, with the possible exception of nice girl Niki Harris (Leah West). Conveniently – or is it? – Cioffi falls for her on the spot – a romance that’s as much of a damp squib as the bulk of this frustrating show.
There’s enough talent on display and, in the midst of all the theatrical carryings-on, a convincingly entertaining and properly balanced show seems to lurk in the wings. Unfortunately, it never gets its cue.
Images by Richard Davenport
Curtains is at Manchester Palace Theatre until October 12, 2019. For more information, click here.