The Australian premiere of the Broadway musical-whodunnit Curtains adds another feather to The Production Company’s cap with this polished, brisk and sophisticated laugh-a-plenty production.
Peter Stone’s original book and the concept completed by Rupert Holmes is well-crafted and wittily transformed by Fred Ebb’s lyrics and John Kander’s fizzy blend of bright unmistakable Broadway-style tunes, mellow ballads and light jazz.
In this Bostonian backstage-murder-mystery, Jessica Cranshaw (Nicki Wendt), the wretchedly talentless leading lady of a new musical, collapses on stage and dies after the opening night curtain call. A murder investigation ensues and Detective Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Simon Gleeson) is assigned to the case, solving what becomes a series of murders in a career-bending highlight that hilariously exposes his impressive music theatre abilities and, in his distracted process, wins in romance with the musical’s understudy Niki Harris (Alinta Chidzey).
There’s a bevy of amusing and shamelessly stereotyped characters at tug-o-war in their relationships, which bind and sizzle underneath this troupe of talented performers who are blackmailed into accepting less than they’re worth by the unscrupulous theatre producer Sidney Bernstein (John Wood). With the theatre in lockdown and rehearsals going ahead while the case is solved, we get close to the business of theatre and the hearts of a team we come to sympathise with.
Critics don’t get away unscathed. In fact, they don’t get away, starting with Act 1’s “What Kind of Man” bouncily sung in a quartet and referred to as “low-down dirty bums”, “loathsome” and “scum”. I should give up now!
Director Roger Hodgman has worked a treat in bringing the complexities and nuances of the plot’s assortment of layers together from a large cast of Australian musical theatre talent who rise to the comic occasion with bravado and bang.
Act 1 moves at a cracking pace as the witty lines and gestures thread Dans Jolly’s exciting choreography and the beautifully rendered songs. Act 2 lags momentarily through investigations, but I can’t remember the last musical I saw in which I hardly missed a word because the enunciation is so crisp and natural, barring the odd inconsistencies with the American accent. Sound quality and balance excelled.
Christina Smith’s set design succeeds with a simplicity that depicts the backstage and the various vibrant settings for the show-within-a-show backdrops and props that move smoothly into position. A mix of dazzling costumes of 20th century-styled fluidity by Esther Marie Hayes perfectly delineate and colour the characters and Matt Scott’s evocative lighting adds further life to the drama.
Handsome and bright-eyed Gleeson takes to Cioffi like a duck to water as he sings and dances his way with cordial and calculated manner throughout the crime investigation, while unable to help himself lending directorial glitter to rehearsals.
Chidzey’s gleaming bright voice and breezy dancing gives freshness to the ever-smiling Harris, escaping the suspicion of the besotted Cioffi but never far from it in front of this audience. Together in Act 2’s “A Tough Act to Follow” Gleeson and Chidzey sing and dance their way into such an elegant and dreamy showbiz swirl that you’d be disappointed for them if Niki turned out to be the culprit.
Sparks reignite to create warmth in the song-writing team of Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox who Lucy Maunder and Alex Rathgeber give homely, unassuming good-heartedness. Catapulted into the role as the new leading lady, Maunder nails her character’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Rathgeber’s warm and fuzzy charm is exposed in Act 1’s “I Miss the Music” then oozes with unabated romantic sensibility as he pairs with Maunder in Act 2’s “Thinking of Missing the Music”.
It’s always a welcome moment when Zoe Coppinger interjects with squeaky porcelain-voiced sharpness as, the ambitious bimbo chorus girl kept at stardom’s bay by her mother and producer Carmen Bernstein.
As the brassy, cigarette sucking and indomitable Carmen, Melissa Langton is outstanding, moving with matriarchal heft and singing with succulent, seasoned appeal. Other great performances come from Jared Bryan who leaps and pivots about with heart and soul as Bobby, Wood as Carmen’s blackmailing husband, and Tony Rickards as the man-who-knew-too-much stage manager, Oscar.
Colin Lane can’t decide where his allegiances are as his accent wanders distractingly about the English-speaking world, but what a smashing good turn he gives in comic style as the show’s director, Christopher Belling.
Nothing goes amiss with the ensemble of vivaciously performing and characterful individuals, and nothing beats the stage boards more electrically than when the two attempts at rewriting and choreographing “In the Same Boat” come together in a tidal wave of entertainment bliss in “In the Same Boat 3” thanks to the singing detective’s unstoppable hand.
From curtain up, the newly established Production Company Orchestra arrived brimming with rewarding musical panache. Musical director John Foreman steered his clean-playing 15-piece band in a fine direction and surprises when doubling up as the Robbin’ Hood’s conductor Sasha Iljinsky with a none too shabby song as well.
And if the intention is to make many a critic cringe with, Stephen Wheat boldly succeeds as the exaggerated toffee critic of the Boston Globe, Daryl Grady.
Premiering just 10 years ago, Curtains breaks no new ground in musical theatre but the Agatha Christie-like story of murder and suspicion behind the stage curtain keeps you guessing while you’re entertained and humoured to no end.