THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Book by Rupert Holmes, music by John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Original book and concept by Peter Stone
At the Landor Theatre, London.
Until September 1, 2012.
Think of Kiss Me Kate crossed with Murder She Wrote with a soupcon of All About Eve and you’ve got the backstage-whodunnit-musical Curtains. And if you think that’s a rich mix, then throw in a show-within-a-show which is a cowboy pastiche of Robin Hood and you end up with a seriously over-egged pudding.
This is the show which during its writing lost its book writer Peter Stone and its lyricist Fred Ebb. Enter Rupert Holmes to doctor the script and finish the lyrics with John Kander. Of course, with a back catalogue as stunning as theirs, Kander and Ebb can be forgiven a little indulgence, and this is certainly what we have here. Premiered in LA to poor reviews, it moved to Broadway in 2007 where the reviews were no kinder, but it ran for a solid year thanks to a Tony winning turn by David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) in the lead.
It is gloriously creaky and at times great fun. Robert McWhir’s cast of 20 create magic in this postage stamp sized venue and designer Martin Thomas uses ropes, pulleys, scrims and even half a proscenium arch to recreate this backstage world. Robbie O’Reilly’s witty choreography in these confines is fearless, particularly the Act One climax ‘Thataway’. The ambition of the Landor’s musicals continue to amaze.
It is 1959 and opening night of a Boston try-out, and the movie star lead is trying everyone with her lack of talent. At a curtain call she gets poisoned and expires, causing one wag to lament “The skies are blue, her lips are too”. Enter Lieut. Frank Cioffi (the amiable Jeremy Legat) of the Boston PD, who quarantines the company in the theatre to solve the mystery. Being totally star struck, he plans to relish this case and promptly falls for one of the leading ladies. Two more deaths ensue and it soon resembles Murder on the Orient Express.
It’s packed with theatrical archetypes: the brassy Jewish producer (who wails the song “It’s a business”), her rat of a co-producer husband called Sidney Bernstein, her wannabe ingenue daughter and the composer and lyricist pair whose romantic entanglements keep them tied to this turkey. They’re not the only ones, as Cioffi reveals that all the cast are under some obligation to Sidney.
The first act is the best as it wallows in backstage bitchiness notably led by the English (of course) director, played by Bryan Kennedy, superb in major swishy mode. When named as a suspect he tartly replies “Well, it’s an honour just to be nominated”.
The number ‘What Kind of Man’ bemoans the existence of critics and ‘Show People’ is a paean to theatre folk, so corny it could be an off-cut from Jerry Herman. Musically, the piece isn’t shy about re-heating tunes from their earlier hits.
By Act Two the piece drowns under the weight of multiple characters and too many plot points to resolve and Cioffi stages set pieces in the hope of getting characters to reveal motive. This ends up resembling one of those episodes of Poirot, where the suspects are all gathered together in one room for the big reveal and he bores ‘em to death.
One can see why it took its time crossing the Atlantic but, given a production of such gusto here, it is still worth checking out.