Thursday, November 11, 2010

"Curtains" for Kander and Ebb

In forty years of attending musicals all round the world, I have been to the theatre in Christchurch just five times. Last night was the fifth. Back at the old Theatre Royal where in 1968 I sang Madama Butterfly with the New Zealand Opera.

The piece of the evening was entitled Curtains, and the once well-known names of Messrs Kander, Ebb, Peter Stone and Rupert Holmes were attached to it. I am told it has run for more than two years on Broadway, which doesn’t speak very well for the taste and brainpower of Broadway. Curtains is a weak concoction of theatrical clichés, borrowed from ancient here and there, which bases itself on the oldest cliché in the book: a show about a show. This one is so evidently put together with an eye to being ‘commercial’, that the writers –- in their devout commercialness -- have omitted to include wit, humour, style and melody, and left themselves only with a series of achingly old-hat items, such as a pale burlesque of Oklahoma!, set amongst a parade of copycat ‘period’ dances and songs and of cardboard characterisations.
Is this to what Broadway has come? No wonder American producers rush to mount pop pasticcios and kiddie spectaculars. No wonder I and my colleagues and friends no longer make the pilgrimages to New York that we did in the seventies and the eighties. This is the sort of unimaginative pap that certain publishing houses, in the mid 20th century, used to turn out especially for country amateur groups. And this from the writers of such pieces as Chicago and Drood. Or, perhaps more pertinently (‘original book and concept by’), the man responsible for imposing Sugar, My One and Only and Titanic on us.
We have had the stunning City of Angels, we have had the delightful Something’s Afoot, and we have had the splendid Drood in the realm of ‘murder mystery musicals’ … why do we have to have Curtains which does – or tries to do – something of the same with so very much less skill and sophistication?

If the show itself is poor stuff, the performance – by the final year students of NASDA, New Zealand’s premier musical theatre institution -- was splendid. The five leading players made the most both of the lines they were given and of the songs and dances of the unmemorable score.
James Norris made a delightfully Huckleberry Houndish detective, laid back and lovable, gently and ganglingly comical, and both attractive and effective in song and dance. If the book provided little suspense in his predictable love affair with his Niki (Stephanie Wood) and even less in his tracking down of the oh-so-obvious murderer, he nevertheless managed to keep the character doodling along very firmly at the centre of affairs, himself as the focal point of the show, and the audience actually interested in what was going on. Quite a feat.
Alexandra McKellar as the heavy lady sang strongly and pointed her one-liners with swingeing vigour, Abigail King as the leading lady showed up with a most delightfully flowing singing voice, Miss Wood’s ingénue (the character most deprived of decent material) was all an ingénue should be, and Simon Paenga displayed a splendidly ringing baritone voice in the rather limp part of the show-within-a-show’s composer. Some of the evening’s best moments came, however, in the performance of the concerted music. These pieces were so well sung that one could momentarily stop saying to oneself: ‘oh yes, that’s a copy of 42nd Street, that’s a copy of…’ and just lean back and enjoy the singing.

Next week, I get to meet these young people properly and to spend a little time working with them. I am looking forward to that very much …
We shall spend our time together, I hope, on some rather better stuff than Curtains.


Rebecca said...
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Never mind the quality ... feel the width! :-)