The Arlington Players’ new production of Curtains brings all that musical theater promises an audience: gorgeous sets, outsized talent, big production numbers, and memorable musical pearls strung along an engaging plotline. As with any good crime scene, there are many fingerprints on this murder mystery, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and book by Rupert Holmes, all adapted from an original book and concept by Peter Stone. Curtains presents two days in the life of the out-of-town tune-up of a show destined for Broadway, filled with the anxiety, expectation, clasping of wallets, and clashing of egos and libidos that such a boiler-room of dreams can be.
Producer Barbara Esquibel, director/choreographer Lisa Anne Bailey, co-choreographer Rachael Fine, and music director Scott Richards have built a show and a “show within the show” that draws the audience into the world of Boston Theater in 1959. Costumes (by Joan Lawrence), makeup (by Larissa Norris), sleek mobile sets (by Amanda Acker), and properties and set dressing (by Allison Gray-Mendes and Fernada Mota) are an elegant foundation for the wide-open spaces needed to take full advantage of the Thomas Jefferson stage.
Curtains is an insider’s view of how a musical comes together and, potentially, comes apart. Curtains opens with the opening night of the “show within the show” entitled “Robbin’ Hood.” A gorgeous backdrop by paint designer Jared Davis greets the audience as a curtain rises to reveal a Western town celebrating its salvation led by a chanteuse from the local saloon (Jessica Cranshaw, played by a trippingly delightful Erin Branigan). Opening night ends with Jessica passing out backstage.
After the performance, the production team finds more daggers in their Broadway plans as the abysmal reviews roll in. In the song “What Kind of Man,” the magnificent quartet of Carmen Bernstein (Judy Lewis), Oscar Shapiro (Bob McGrath), Aaron Fox and Georgia Hendricks (Shakil Azizi and Carrie Kirby) sing what is perhaps Kander and Ebb’s own heartfelt wish to demonize all those who critique theater (point taken by this author).
The backstage conflict is further fueled by Director Christopher Belling (Chuck Dluhy) announcing that he will replace Jessica with the show’s writer, Georgia. Producer Carmen tosses a lit match on this toxic tinder by announcing that Jessica is in fact dead. Cast, crew, producers – all are in full riot.
Enter Lt. Frank Cioffi (Eric Kennedy) of the Boston Police Department. Lt. Cioffi loves the theater and as the play unfold he finds new love as well. Eric Kennedy plays Lt. Cioffi with a commanding presence, precise speech, and a lean prowl that lets everyone know that he is on the case. Kennedy’s clear Boston accent recalls the bartenders of Copley Square and the crowds in the Garden. With rich, multi-faceted vocals to match his acting, Kennedy guides the musicals (both Curtains and “Robbin’ Hood”) to their delightful, convoluted ends.
Maura Lacy plays Cioffi’s love interest, Niki Harris. Lacy is enchanting as the innocent, hardworking young actor just trying to make it. With Kennedy, their characters bring to life the charming awkwardness of kind-hearted people falling in love. Mirroring this developing infatuation are the more mature relationships of the ménage à trois of actor/choreographer Bobby Pepper, lyricist/actor Georgia, and songwriter Aaron. This trio of Brandon Steele, Carrie Kirby, and Shakil Azizi cut through the chaos of backstage life with pathos and longing, each with a song, a moment, a look that underscores their passion for the work and for one another. All have voices that shimmer with emotion and gravity.
Judy Lewis as Carmen leads the production team with strength and just a glimmer of humanity beneath a thick skin of insistent acrimony and incisive honesty. Lewis sings “It’s a Business” with mike-dropping parental certainty, opening the song with hints of an ironic anti-Momma Rose trying to dissuade her daughter, Bambi Bernet (Jessi Shull), from continuing down the path of an acting career. Shull is by turns alight at the prospects of the play and as a sullen irresistible force to her mother’s immovable object, both women strong and wily as they work to reach their goals.
Bob McGrath plays the financial backer Oscar with an open-hearted, wallet-guarding wonder that he, too, can be “in the theater.” As the Director, Chuck Dluhy struts the stage with magnificent condescension, self-absorption, and a playful admiration for real talent when it appears. Emma Moran completes the production team in the role of Stage Manager Jenny Harmon. Moran creates every director’s dream in a Stage Manager – executive authority, knowledge of each detail, and a fawning love for the Director. Moran’s beautiful, strong vocals and steely look leave no doubt as to who is in charge backstage.
As the Boston Globe theater critic Daryl Grady, Josh Cleveland creates the impression of an eel lurking in a dark place, ready to strike. As Sidney Bernstein, Larry Grey, Jr. leaves no doubt as to why Carmen is in Boston whilst he is in New York – the farther apart, the better. Grey later in the show evokes a shark-like pleasure in devouring actors the way many assume that a producer will.
The ensemble is the ebullient heart of this show. Filled with talented actors, singers, and dancers, their high energy and musical ability shines joyously throughout. Their ease with one another in the drops, dives, tosses, and high kicks that pepper each big number leave the audience knowing that this is musical theater at its most beloved. The final round of “In the Same Boat” is a masterly crescendo to a magical evening.
The sound team delivers the show from stage to audience with reasonable consistency, though at certain moments actors could not be heard over the orchestra. The lighting team created elegant moods during moments such as in “The Woman’s Dead” and the spotlights were for the most part on point.
Music Director Scott Richards delivers an orchestra performance that supports and elevates the ensemble’s energy and pacing. A few surprise moments await Richards, but let’s leave that for the performance. He is more than ready.
Musical theater at its finest enchants and engages, drawing tears and applause. TAP’s Curtains does it all, a timeless reminder of why we come and why we come back, and why the people who make such great theater are there for us.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.