There’s always something a bit queasy about the prospect of a community theater taking on a big and bouncy Broadway musical: Despite the best intentions, the inherent limitations of local theater, compounded by the complex requirements of such shows, often lead to a production that is uneven at best, disastrous at worst. Fiasco is forever waiting around the corner.
This, delightfully, is not the case with Cottage Theatre’s current production of Curtains, a John Kander and Fred Ebb musical with book by Rupert Holmes (yes, the “Piña Colada Song” guy). Featuring strong leads, a lavish set and song-and-dance numbers that exceed all expectations — not to mention a live orchestra — this is one of the most solid, and solidly fun, shows of the year.
Written by the same team that created Chicago and Cabaret, Curtains is Kander and Ebb’s love letter to musical theater itself, a show that exuberantly celebrates (and sometimes thumbs its nose at) the hard-earned flamboyance of a fantasized lyrical life. Using the classic “show within a show” trope, this musical farce centers on a series of stage-bound murders that threaten to halt an already doomed production of a ridiculous musical based on the Robin Hood tale.
Director and choreographer Janet Rust takes hold of this wild and somewhat ridiculous whodunit, with its huge cast and elaborate numbers, and shapes it into something pretty remarkable. It all works. From the chorus-line routines to the slapstick comedy to the difficult musical transitions, everything flows smoothly in a show that is at once endearing, diverting and tartly funny.
Merely holding the reins on such an abundant production would be impressive enough, but Rust and her production crew have assembled an exceptional cast here, especially in Curtain’ key roles. As Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, the theater-loving detective tasked with solving the string of murders, Joel Ibanez is appropriately charming and abashed; Ibanez brings old-fashioned noir smarts to the role, sly but slightly bemused — a starstruck Philip Marlowe enthralled by the enticing understudy (and murder suspect) Niki Harris, well-played by Sophie Blades.
Unfortunately, all of the strong performances are too numerous to mention here among such a large and talented cast, though a handful really stand out: Larry Brown as the snobby, put-upon British director Christopher Belling; Kim Fairbairn as the tough-love co-producer Carmen Bernstein; Tracy Nygard and Mark VanBeever as the divorced songwriting team of Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox.
VanBeever, who seems to make magic wherever he goes, also deserves a nod as the production’s vocal director. Curtains is full of great songs (standouts are “The Woman’s Dead,” “He Did It” and “It’s a Business”), and each is performed with uncommon zeal and precision. And, as mentioned, Rust’s choreography is fluid and engaging, a spectacle to match the show’s sonic prowess.
Any way you cut it, Cottage Theatre’s production of Curtains is a success — an eye-popping bit of controlled chaos that delivers on every difficult front. As the second-act song says, this one’s going to be a tough act to follow. — Rick Levin