BY SANDY STAGGS
“Awkward” hardly describes reviewing an opening eve preview of “Curtains” with no less than four other spectators in the audience (including director Dr. Tim Baxter-Ferguson), when a quartet of Limestone College actors excoriate heartless theatre critics with lyrics like “low down dirty bum” and “swine-ish scurvy scum” in their second number “What Kind of Man?”
Any critic would wriggle in his or her seat.
But this is all part of the John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Curtains,” an amusing and well-done backstage whodunit at Limestone that goes behind the scenes of a musical company’s out-of-town tryout in 1959 Boston before taking the make-or-break plunge of Broadway.
On opening night of “Robbin’ Hood” set in the Old West, the dreadful leading lady Jessica Cranshaw (Ashleigh Ramsey) dies after the final bow. And when Lt. Frank Cioffi (Luke Holt) of Beantown’s finest informs the cast and crew that Jessica (whose loss no one really mourns) was poisoned, they are all suspects and sequestered to the confines of the theater until further notice.
The stage is then set for a musical version of “Noises Off” as if written by Agatha Christie. Limestone actually staged a sublime and riotous version of “Noises Off” last month. And while that farce about a traveling company’s adventures touring a play in England used slamming doors as a device, “Curtains” employs, well, lots of stage curtains on Baxter-Ferguson’s carefully-oriented set; the scenery is always cleverly shifting perspectives up and down stage and exposing theatre shop jargon and dark privy areas such as the fly rigging.
“Curtains” is a spoof of backstage comedies like “The Producers” with a smitten of and shades of “All About Eve.” And “Robbin’ Hood,” which lies somewhere on the continuum between “Oklahoma!” and “Blazing Saddles,” is supposed to be a terrible musical with songs like “Wide Open Spaces” and “Kansasland, ”and frenetic, hyper-inflated acting.
Cioffi, who often performs at a local community theatre, divides his time between solving the murder (or murders?), improving the musical-within-the-musical “Robbin’ Hood,” and courting Niki (played by a bubbly Kinsey Gregg), the understudy with fiery red hair that Cioffi (or us) never know whether to trust.
Holt, who is more Cary Grant (incidentally, a theatre critic in “Arsenic and Old Lace”) than Hercule Poirot, parlays his Richard Gere looks and suave demeanor into an engaging robust portrayal filled with charm and certitude. In a role for which David Hyde Pierce snagged a Tony award, Holt emphatically sells it and thrives in the musical numbers (behind-the-scenes ditties like “Show People” and “A Tough Act to Follow”) as well.
Anna Grace Bradford hilariously stands out instantly and a rip-roaring force of nature as Bambi, the understudy’s understudy who, like Lucy Ricardo, constantly pines to be in the spotlight by seeking tacit approval from her parents and producers, Carmen and Sydney Bernstein, a sparkling Jessie Cantrell and steely Buck Collins.
But at the heart of “Curtains” is the ethereal, down-to-earth Jade Alford as Georgia, one-half of the show’s divorced songwriting team, who takes over the lead after Jessica’s demise. Her double-edged “Thinking of Him” is one of the finest musical moments in the show.
She splendidly captures the visage of independence, apprehension and grounded love, and her Georgia (along with J.R. Bloomer as ex-husband Aaron Fox and an exceptionally convincing Charles Carr, who even manages to get in a few taps as Georgia’s ex-boyfriend choreographer Bobby Pepper) are almost the only characters that are not clichéd or stock stereotypes.
Christopher Belling, the flamboyant British director, is played with extra creepiness by Hayden Peterson.
The cast also includes Matt Smith as the bizarre theatre critic Daryl Grady; James Holmes as show investor Oscar Shapiro; Stephen Corry as stage manager Johnny Harmon; and Damion Deslaurier, Jamaas Britton, Jeanna Burch, Jada Bell, Christina Loscalzo, Autumn Krueger, NeTorrian Patton and Grace Wylie.
Jacqua Carr’s pleasing whimsical choreography hams up the comedy succinctly with well-known vaudeville and Broadway steps. And I mean a whole lot of intricate routines to entertain us.
Music Director Dr. David S. Thompson also conducts the old-fashioned vaudeville score. The live band is comprised of Jim Simmons on keyboard, David Hodges on trumpet, Mike Miller on his happy trombone, Shawn Allen on guitar and David Lawson on drums.
The festive costumes and lighting design are by Vandy Scoates; hair and wig styling by Buck Collins and Will Luther; Dylan Seidling is stage manager; Jamie Grindstaff is on sound board; and Nicole Alberts and Deviante Mims are the running crew.
“Curtains” doesn’t rise to the same level as Kander and Ebb’s masterpieces “Cabaret” or “Chicago” either musically or narratively: both Ebb and the original book writer Peter Stone died before its completion and Rupert Holmes authored the final script. Nor does it have the same fascinating storyline or razzmatazz panache as “Noises Off” this summer. And while not all the jokes land as eagerly as intended, this production is indeed a most amusing show with a terrific cast.
“Curtains” runs Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Limestone Center Theatre, 130 Leadmine Dr. in Gaffney. Call (864) 488-4502 or visit www.showtix4u.com.