"We're a special kind of people known as show people," goes a self-congratulatory song in Curtains, the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Rupert Holmes-Peter Stone backstage murder-mystery musical that has finally opened on Broadway after over a decade in the making. What the song doesn't say, while glorifying one of the most demanding and often most disillusioning careers imaginable, is that some show people do learn how to put on a damn good show whenever they set their minds to it. Kander and Ebb revealed the secret in Chicago when they advised, "Give 'em the old razzle dazzle -- razzle dazzle 'em."
So, as they've been raising Curtains for Broadway consumption, the show's creators -- minus the late Ebb and Stone, but including director Scott Ellis and choreographer Rob Ashford -- have ladled on the razzle and the dazzle until they've fashioned a product that defies exiting consumers to say they haven't been entertained. Only a curmudgeon -- perhaps someone like this reviewer -- could walk away muttering about the substitution of craft for inspired musical comedy art.
Curtains operates according to an unwritten show-biz tactic: The Just-Enough Maneuver. There's just enough mystery story that makes sense. There are just enough witty wisecracks among the lame ones, and just enough songs (in William David Brohn's arrangements) that land before evaporating as the final note fades. There are just enough energetic dance numbers, including an Agnes de Mille send-up that younger patrons won't get, and just enough colorful sets (Anna Louizos), costumes (William Ivey Long), and lighting effects (Peter Kaczorowski). But there are more than enough adroit performances by a large contingent of proficient Broadway performers, all of them giving 110 percent.
Okay, the story: Jessica Cranshaw (Patty Goble), the star of tryout musical-within-the-musical Robbin' Hood, is bumped off on opening night in 1959. This brings Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce) to Boston's Colonial Theatre, where he quickly falls for ingenue Niki Harris (Jill Paice).
After eliminating her from his list of suspects, Cioffi has still got a long list to consider: vulgarian producers Carmen and Sidney Bernstein (Debra Monk and Ernie Sabella); lyricist/performer Georgia Hendricks (Karen Ziemba) and her ex-hubby, composer Aaron Fox (Jason Danieley); director Christopher Belling (Edward Hibbert); choreographer and leading man Bobby Pepper (Noah Racey); soubrette Bambi Bernet (Megan Sikora), who also happens to be the Bernsteins' daughter; stage manager Johnny Harmon (Michael X. Martin); major investor Oscar Shapiro (Michael McCormick); local critic Daryl Grady (John Bolton); and, well, the rest of the Robbin' Hood cast.
Lieutenant Cioffi is stagestruck himself -- which makes him a spiritual brother to The Drowsy Chaperone's Man in Chair -- so he also becomes a de facto show doctor while trying to solve the three murders that eventually stack up. And while the mystery is ingeniously enough worked out by Holmes, it's a little more than a peg for the musical numbers. A bunch of these are Robbin' Hood ditties, including a cutie called "Thataway!" wherein the title is rhymed with "Piscataway" and "hat away." The one song that has authentic panache is "It's a Business," which perhaps unintentionally spills the beans on an enterprise such as this.
Pierce and Monk are top-billed, and they're perfectly fine. He plays his Frasier droll card as well as ever and also airs a Boston accent that sounds like Vaughn Meader doing JFK. Monk, who last year appeared Off-Broadway in "Show People," is properly brassy. (Theater insiders will think they know whom she's modeled after, and will feel that Sidney Bernstein is likely not modeled after Beatles impresario Sid Bernstein.)
Of those billed below the title, Hibbert stands out as the acerbic director, although why an Englishman is guiding a musical placed in the Old West is never explained. Ziemba, Danieley, Racey, McCormick, and Sabella nicely exploit their triple-threat talents in service to the greater good. Paice, with her right-on ingenue face, and Sikora, with her right-on soubrette voice, add sugar and spice.
The second song in Curtains, "What Kind of Man?", twits critics. It asks, "Who could be mean enough, base and obscene enough, to take a job like that?" Of course, it's meant to bring out the good sport in those of us men and women who do take a job like that. Perhaps this notice is, in my case, proof that it has.