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Curtains: All the world's a backstage drama

[The following feature was written for the current Arvada Center program guide, artscentric.]

Theatre folks like nothing more than to indulge themselves in performing backstage dramas and sharing industry jokes, while avid theatre-goers like nothing better than to partake in these inside stories.

Lauren Shealy as Georgia Hendricks and Jeffrey Roark as Aaron Fox
Lauren Shealy as Georgia Hendricks
and Jeffrey Roark as Aaron Fox
Photo: P. Switzer, 2013
To satisfy this appetite, Rupert Holmes (book), along with Peter Stone (original book and concept), plus the team of John Kander (music) and Fred Ebb (lyrics), creators of Cabaret, Chicago, and The Kiss of the Spiderwoman, have dusted off almost every trick in the comedic book—farce, melodrama, comedy, romance, murder mystery, film noir, and vaudeville—and delivered them as send-ups wrapped in an unabashedly fun "musical within a musical."

"With all the different genres," says director Gavin Mayer, "it's about looking at the show moment-to-moment—What is the show in this moment and what genre are we playing?—and trying to adhere to the rules of that genre in that moment of the show."

While Curtains is set in the 1959-60 Broadway season, at the height of the golden age of American musical theatre, the contrast between it and the musical-within-the-musical, Robbin' Hood, provides the opportunity for an adaptation that delivers insights into the larger history of the form, as Mayer explains: "It's been fun for Brian Mallgrave, our scenic designer, to go back and look at the scenic practices of the 1950s and '60s, which were very two-dimensional, with lots of forced perspective in the paintings. So, in the show Curtains, when we're not doing Robbin' Hood, it's very three-dimensional and we feel like we're in the Colonial Theatre, where Curtains is set; and when we're doing Robbin' Hood, it goes to that mid-1950s two-dimensional painting. We're hoping that this helps people see how theatre was done back then; it's so different than what we see nowadays, with stuff coming up from the floor and stuff flying in from the ceiling."

Morgan Van De Hey as Carmen Bernstein and Michael E. Gold as Oscar Shapiro
Morgan Van De Hey
as Carmen Bernstein
and Michael E. Gold
as Oscar Shapiro
Photo: P. Switzer, 2013
Much like the scenes from various operas within The Phantom of the Opera, which were polished productions except for the leading lady, Carlotta, an aging diva, so is Robbin' Hood a promising show, except for the leading lady, Jessica Crenshaw. In Curtains' case, however, Robbin' Hood is still in tryouts in Boston and needs a few fixes before having a legitimate shot at a Broadway run.

As always there are investors, producers, and the cast and crew to consider, not to mention a murderer, but in Curtains there is the additional plot line of a script doctor for Robbin' Hood—much like George S. Kaufman, Ben Hecht, or others back in the day—who enters and provides the prescription for revisions that will make the show a success.

Jim Poulos as Lt. Frank Cioffi and Erica Sweany as Niki Harris>
Jim Poulos as Lt. Frank Cioffi
and Erica Sweany as Niki Harris
Photo: P. Switzer, 2013
In this case, the unlikely fix-it man is a detective, Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, of the Boston Police Department, who is called in to solve a homicide. Cioffi is a theatre buff—he's performed at the community level, but has no formal training—yet he has seen enough to have an astute sense of what works and what doesn't. Cioffi loves being around show people, as does Daryl Grady, the theatre critic from the —, which becomes another backstage theme.

"It's my hope that the audience is engaged by the show-within-the-show and gets lost in it," says Mayer. "What they'll find is the history of professional theatre and how it works and comes together. It's so interesting to see this guy come in, Cioffi, who doesn't have any theatrical training, but has this passion for theatre, and how the production team buys into his observations (regarding Robbin' Hood) and incorporates them."

Stepping back from Curtains' tightly woven matrix of plots and its built-in survey of American musical theatre history and technique, we can't help but admire the marvelous window that its writers and composers have fashioned. It's difficult enough to create a Broadway musical from scratch, figure out how to hone the rough edges, and get it off the ground; but, at the same time, to show us how you did it—by reverse engineering the process, so that we are able to see it unfold as if it were happening in the moment—is a stunning achievement and fitting final curtain to the Kander and Ebb canon. Ebb died before the musical was completed, as did the original writer, Stone.

The Arvada Center's production of Curtains runs through July 28th. For more information: 720-898-7200 or www.arvadacenter.org.

Bob Bows

 

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