It feels rather ironic reviewing a musical in which the ever-oppressive theatre critic is the enemy; in which it is incredulously asked in a three-part harmony “What kind of slob would want a job like that?!” and in which the critic himself (Noah Nelson Gross) is a murderous, kidnapping villain. Still, career doubts aside, Conrad Cohen’s direction of the student cast murder-mystery musical was refreshingly entertaining with an anthem of a score parading inside your head for at least 48 hours afterwards.
Set in 1959, the plot follows musical-obsessed Lieutenant Frank Cioffi’s (Sam Warren) investigation of a murder that took place during a failing musical theatre company’s production of Robin Hood. He politely quarantines the entire cast and crew in the theatre until he can solve the crime. Naturally, several others are mysteriously killed. The detective falls in love with the not-so-leading lady, Nikki (Laura Wainwright), the evil critic is finally revealed as the criminal (obviously) in true Mystery Inc. fashion and Cioffi becomes the leading part in Robin Hood. Instead of feeling like a musical Murder She Wrote, Cohen’s version satirically focuses on the ‘je ne sais quoi’ of show business. In a script littered with the history of musicals, why not employ some satirical staging and aural allusions to hits like Oklahoma!, Annie Get Your Gun and 42nd Street, for the musical geek in all of us?
The choreography, lead by Abbie Cohen, gave a nostalgic nod to the old classics but still remained fresh and modern. The tongue-in-cheek routine for ‘Thataway!’ added a spangled high kick of irony to the conscious debate of sixties sexism. Upon first glance, the set was disappointingly average; there were two backdrops, one of a badly drawn jail and the other of a bank. But as soon as the musical began with the closing number of Robin Hood, all became clear – this theatre is not quite on Broadway. The sparse set added to the darkly comic overtone; the dangerously suspended spotlights only ask for trouble. But the technical team impressed with the depiction of Sidney Berstein’s (Ben Hollands) dangling corpse; a comically confusing mess of silhouettes, curtain closings and deliberate faults. This is not a musical for the soul-searching satirist though – don’t look for any further meaning to the destructive mother-daughter relationship of producer Carmen Bernstein (Alice Cronshaw) and showgirl Bambi Bernet (Melissa Park) other than what it is – a destructive mother-daughter relationship. As for the whole critics being soulless murderer motif, that’s definitely just for comic effect…
I am by no means a musical expert and am usually a fan of the show-stopping fast numbers and tend to crave a second interval when the ballads start. But in Curtains, thanks to some heart-rendering performances – including Georgia’s (Pam Dick) haunting ‘Thinking of Him’, Cioffi’s honest ‘Coffee Shop Nights‘ and Aaron’s (Rob Leventhall) stirring ‘I Miss The Music‘ – it’s the slow ones that stick.
In a show that consistently throws out tired jokes: “Sweetie, the only thing you can arouse is suspicion” and “Normally, I’d say over my dead body, but I don’t want to give anybody ideas”, a rarely found beautiful comic timing from the cast breathed life into the script and ingratiated it with our ever-fashionable ‘awkward’ comedy. Small diamonds in the comedy rough are created by Irish Detective O’Farrell (Patrick McChrystal) and the typecast camp British director Christopher Belling (James McAndrew) was genuinely funny instead of being tiresome. A chorus playing a chorus was also strangely compelling to watch and each member gave a thoroughly energetic performance.
Although according to Curtains I’ll probably end up a homicidal and lonely journalist, the musical inspired a lost love not usually found in its cheesy roots – the ability to pull off subtle comedy and have the audience leave with the ballads, not the up-tempos, reverberating in their heads.