When you’re seeing for the first time a show bearing the credits of John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago, Cabaret), your expectations are high—perhaps too high. The composing duo’s last collaboration before the death of lyricist Ebb, Curtains (now onstage at the Manatee Players Riverfront Theatre in an area premiere), may not live up to all those expectations. It is frequently entertaining, but sometimes while watching one can sense a potential of the better show it could have been.
The musical, which starred David Hyde Pierce on Broadway, bears an original book and concept by Peter Stone, with the final book and some additional lyrics provided by Rupert Holmes. It’s a tribute of sorts to those classic backstage musicals, where what is going on behind the scenes in the lives of the cast and crew is more interesting than anything taking place before the footlights.
In this case, the cast of Robbin’ Hood of the Old West has more than usual to trouble them. The songwriters (Melanie Dan and Travis Rogers) are a former husband-and-wife team who may still be carrying torches; the director (Rodd Dyer) is a flouncing Brit with a sarcastic tongue but not much in the way of creativity; and the unhappily married producers (Nancy Denton and Michael Nolan) are of separate minds as to whether to close the show in Boston before it ever makes it to Broadway. Throw in a talentless leading lady (played with flair by Trina Rizzo) who’s a natural murder victim, and you’ve got a theater full of suspects. Luckily the homicide detective (Steve Dawson) assigned to find her killer is a stagestruck musical theater fan who just might be able to fix the show at the same time he solves the crime.
It’s a good setup, but one that doesn’t provide quite as many laughs as one would hope. For one thing, Curtains is overlong for the story it tells; and the technical demands of the show sometimes slow this production down at crucial moments. As often happens with community theater, not everyone in the cast is a polished dancer (although director-choreographer Rick Kerby’s work does its best to disguise that fact). And although the lyrics for the songs are often clever, the tunes themselves (deliberately written in an older musical theater tradition, not like Kander and Ebb’s more familiar work) do not, at first hearing anyway, seem that memorable.
All that said, there is some strong work by cast members, including newcomer Nancy Denton as wise-cracking producer Carmen, Dyer as bitchy director Christopher Belling, Gabi Guinta as aspiring star Bambi, and Steve and Dianne Dawson as the detective and the apparently sweet, innocent actress he immediately falls for. And there are a couple of numbers that are fun, including The Woman’s Dead, It’s a Business and Show People, along with more standard fare for the show-within-a-show.
Curtains continues through March 7 at the Manatee Players Riverfront; for tickets call 748-5875 or visit manateeplayers.com.