Rebecca Watson, Nick Dalton,
Laura Keller and Erick Devine
in And the Curtain Rises
(© Scott Suchman)
Rebecca Watson, Nick Dalton,
Laura Keller and Erick Devine
in And the Curtain Rises
(© Scott Suchman)
Adding music and dance to stage plays seems quite natural in 2011, but just how that magical mix was created -- and the American musical theater was born -- is the subject of Signature Theatre's world premiere musical, And the Curtain Rises. And if the first act of this work from composer Joseph Thalken, librettist Michael Slade, and lyricist Mark Campbell ever becomes as good as the second act, the show might have a chance for future success.

Indeed, the musical already has many of the necessary elements: a fanciful story (very loosely based on actual events); engaging characters; and a mostly pleasing score. Moreover, in the hands of director Kristin Hanggi, the work is played for laughs and occasional warmth. But the first act of this two-and-a-half-hour show is so unnecessarily unfocused and redundant that audiences may be tempted to give up before the going gets good.

The musical takes us behind the scenes of the creation of The Black Crook, the New York sensation of the post-Civil War era, full of scantily-clad (for then) ballerinas-turned-chorus girls, songs, and spectacle that ran over 500 performances and toured for years and years. But its start was shaky, as inexperienced producer William Wheatley (Nick Dalton) first attempted to mount a turgid melodrama. As this show tells it, fate intervened when a nearby theater burned down and the members of a French ballet company were stranded on Wheatley's theater doorstep. Out of a mix of desperation and chance, the disciplines of drama and music were joined to uproarious result.

Hangii's formula is to have her cast of 16 generally play it big. While acting in the ever-changing incarnations of the play-within-the-play, the emotions and movements are broad and histrionic. In their "offstage" moments, the actors generate just enough dimension and amiability to propel the story and hold our interest. Furthermore, there's plenty of silliness and sight gags as a standard American drama is transformed into a Germanic fantasy featuring demons, a malevolent baron, and an underworld fairy queen named Stalacta (Anna Kate Bocknek, as the scheming ballerina Marie Bonfant). Meanwhile, Wheatley doggedly pursues his dream of producing a successful play.

Among the supporting cast, standouts include Sean Thompson as manipulative writer Charles Barras, Alma Cuervo as the wily director of the marooned dancers, and Brian Sutherland as a European composer reduced to playing piano for the ballet. Kevin Carolan and Jennifer Smith have fun as married veteran actors, adding a few moments of poignant sentiment in the second act with two versions of the song "Marriage Is a Dance."

"House of Cards" -- sung by Rebecca Watson as leading lady Millicent Cavendish -- is nicely evocative of the 19th Century. There is thunderous melodrama as Dalton and Barras face off regarding changes (gasp!) to the original play's script in "The Words" and "Without Words." The Gilbert-and-Sullivan-like "A Cough," is beautifully executed as physical disaster strikes the New York theater building.

The second act begins with the melodically sophisticated "A Little Pretend," signaling a smoother, more stylish approach. In "Think," drama and dance are integrated before us in a lovely, extended sequence. Indeed, artistic progression occurs so rapidly that by the time we get to the fantasy number "Hail, Stalacta!" we're not surprised that the ballerinas end up performing a fun can-can. And "Stay" is a lovely, modern ballad in which Wheatley begs Millicent not to abandon the project, with Dalton channeling his voice into tenor territory.

Beowulf Borritt's handsome and multi-dimensional scenic design and the use of a 14-member orchestra are further evidence that resources have not been spared in mounting this show -- even if the final product ultimately fails to rise to the occasion.