Curtains: A Musical Whodunnit
Book by Rupert Holmes, original book and concept by Peter Stone, music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb
Dan Looney, Adam Paulden and Jason Haigh-Ellery for DLAP Entertainment, Sally Horchow and Roger Horchow
Palace Theatre, Manchester
This fun, old fashioned musical comedy with an interesting concept, which first opened in Los Angeles in 2006, has some distinguished names on the writing team but has had a troubled history.
The original book was by Peter Stone, who died in 2003 leaving it unfinished. It was taken over by Rupert Holmes with the great songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb on music and lyrics, but Ebb also died in 2004, leaving Kander and Holmes to complete the lyrics. The resulting show is entertaining but hardly a Kander and Ebb classic, which is perhaps why the only reference to Curtains in the article in the programme about the duo looks very much like it was tagged onto the end of a standard biography that didn't mention it at all.
The story marries the 'backstage musical' (such as 42nd Street or Kiss Me Kate) and the whodunnit genres, weaving a totally unbelievable plot around as many clichés it can find in both. It begins on the opening night of Robbin' Hood, a Western adaptation of the stories of the English folk hero, in out-of-town tryouts in Boston before a possible New York opening. The leading lady, film star Jessica Cranshaw (Nia Jermin), is terrible but she drops down dead at the curtain call, producing mixed feelings amongst the cast and production team (the song "The Woman's Dead" contains some of the dark, cheeky humour one would expect of Ebb).
There is also an assassination of the show by most of the critics, prompting the song "What Kind of Man?" in which producer Carmen (Rebecca Lock), show funder Oscar (Martin Callaghan) and songwriting duo Aaron (Ore Oduba) and Georgia (Carley Stenson)—also estranged man and wife, and he is clearly pining for her—ask what kind of horrible person would ever want to be a critic, until they find one positive review written by a 'genius'. We've all been there.
However Jessica's death was murder, and Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford) is keeping everyone in the cast and crew locked in the theatre until he solves the case—and, as a keen amateur actor himself, offers regular suggestions to improve the show as well. Along the way, there are more murders and attempted murders until Cioffi solves the crime and fixes the show, and fixes the songwriting team as well. Plus he gets a romantic interest of his own in actress Niki (Leah West).
It's all very silly but has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, even if some of the songs and dance numbers go on a bit too long and there are innuendos that make the Carry On films look sophisticated, plus the three-hour running time saw a few people drifting off before the end on press night.
Manford is a likeable central presence as the modestly great detective who would rather be one of the company. Stenson gets the chance to show off her lovely rich singing voice as Georgia and is paired well with Oduba, although Strictly fans may be disappointed that he doesn't dance. Lock is the strong, harsh but fair show producer who is a bit too hard on her dancer daughter Bambi (Emma Caffrey). However, whatever the billing on the poster, the star of the show is clearly Samuel Holmes as the show's frankly-spoken director Christopher Belling; he brings to life every scene in which he appears, and we don't see enough of him in act two.
This is one of those shows that is never going to be a 'must-see' but is entertaining enough and isn't going to disappoint anyone who spends the evening in the company of these characters. For a bit of fun escapism, it's certainly worth seeing.
Reviewer: David Chadderton