Reviewed by Alex Wilde
MURDER ON OPENING NIGHT
Final curtain for Jessica Cranshaw – fading star murdered at the premier of musical flop ‘Robbin Hood’. Cast and crew sequestered as Boston PD investigate.
Or so the headline may have read if the events of last night’s performance had been based on fact. ‘Curtains – A Musical Whodunit’ is a shiny new show to this side of the Atlantic. Currently showing at the fantastic Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham this production is from the creative musical writing powerhouse of John Kander and Fred Ebb – the creators of Cabaret and Chicago. Set in 1959, the large cast, crew and financiers of a new musical are confined within the Colonial Theatre, Boston following the murder of the show’s leading lady. A solo homicide detective promptly arrives to investigate as the reviews from the opening night pour in.
Leading the talented cast is the family-friendly favourite Jason Manford as theatre-enthusiast Detective Frank Cioffi. Wading through more calamity than Columbo and with more mirth than Marple, he fills the lawman’s shoes perfectly. An affable and competent showman, Manford’s American accent is flawless and he breezes through the show tunes. The show has been heavily marketed on the trenchcoat-tails of the comedy A-lister, however I felt the main character was underdeveloped and didn’t go far enough in satirising fictional detectives that are synonymous with murder-mysteries.
That’s not to say that the comedy didn’t come thick and fast; laugh-out-loud lyricism, sharp one liners and looks that said it all were constant. For me, the comedy was owned by two stars – Christopher Belling (Samuel Holmes), the fussy, simmering flamboyant, narcissistic British director and Carmen Bernstein (Rebecca Lock), the brash and brassy, formidable producer of Robbin Hood. Holmes very much owned the stage, he revelled in perfectly timed and cutting one liners which delighted the audience. Similarly, Lock piled scorn on her lecherous producer husband with bitter double entendres.
It was hard to invest in the narrative; in the first act, the plot was as befuddled as the detective and a lack of early character exposition left me uninterested in whodunnit and why, even though the checklist of motivations for murder were of course all present and correct: blackmail, envy, greed, love… I was just happy enough riding the wave of comedy and musical spectacle! Fortunately, by the second act, and slaying, the story improved considerably. As Detective Cioffi became more entwined with the suspects (and the gleeful direction of the musical within a musical), character and storyline development picked up pace. Past and present fortunes and foibles were exposed, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
Musically, the show is a hit, the band was buoyant and the varied tone and mix of solo and company-wide musical numbers were an auditory and visual treat. Carley Stenson as Georgia Hendricks, the replacement for the deceased leading lady, was a mezzo-soprano of the highest quality. Although there were no tunes that inspired me to buy the soundtrack for the car journey home, the leads and wider ensemble sang with harmonious gusto.
The Golden Age of American Theatre was captured perfectly in the costumes and setting, encapsulating the post war prosperity and the love of razzle dazzle enjoyed by a generation yet to become immersed in commercial television. The vast majority of the action took place in detailed recreations of backstage or in rehearsal spaces. Large set pieces and props from the Oklahoma-esque ‘Robbin Hood’ were used skilfully within the perfectly choreographed and swinging routines.
If you’re a fan of uplifting show tunes, comedy and Jason Manford, don your fedora, dust of that magnifying glass and investigate ‘Curtains’ before the case goes cold.
Tickets cost from £13 (plus £3.65 transaction fee).
Curtains is at the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham from 5-9 November 2019, for more information or to book tickets visit www.atgtickets.com/birmingham or call the box office on 0844 871 3011.
The Alexandra Theatre, Suffolk Queensway, Birmingham, West Midlands, B5 4DS