Near the beginning of Curtains, Jessica Cranshaw, the untalented and unpleasant star of Robbin' Hood — a musical within the musical — collapses during a rehearsal, clearly the victim of foul play. A young cop is called in to solve the murder, and the mystery unfolds in a manner familiar to all lovers of Agatha Christie or Inspector Poirot — which is fitting, since the action is set in 1959. Everyone is instructed to stay on site as Lieutenant Frank Cioffi considers the stories and backgrounds of one suspect after another. Almost all of the characters have a motive of some kind, and everybody hated Cranshaw.
But there's a bit of a problem. Cioffi is a competent cop, but he's also an amateur actor crazy in love with musicals. Sometimes, as the action unfolds with lots of singing, dancing and thunkingly silly jokes, it's hard to figure out whether he's motivated more by a desire to solve the crime or to fix the many shortcomings of Robbin' Hood — which would be on its way to Broadway had it not been savaged by the local Boston critic. And there's no question at all about his growing interest in pretty ingenue Niki, who, he decides, couldn't possibly be guilty, despite the fact that her fingerprints turn up in places where they shouldn't and she races on stage at one point brandishing a gun.
Curtains was written by Peter Stone; the songs come courtesy of John Kander and Fred Ebb, the formidable team responsible for Cabaret, Chicago and Kiss of the Spiderwoman. The murder mystery provides a thin but entertaining plot line, but at its heart the show is a tribute to musical theater — and love for the form provides the energy that fuels the best moments.
Ebb died before this work was completed, and two songwriters, Aaron and Georgia, play a prominent role in the action. Georgia gets tapped to take over Cranshaw's leading role — naturally she turns out to have true star quality — and she also seems to fall for the leading man, Bobby. This leaves poor Aaron composing all alone. "I Miss the Music" — his explanation to a fascinated Cioffi of how a song comes together and just how essential it is to have a musical partner — is one of the prettiest pieces in the show, as is another wistful tune, "Thinking of Him."
There's also a fantastic piece of legerdemain in which composers Kander and Ebb essentially take a musical number apart — actually showing its disparate and ill-fitting parts — and then have Cioffi bring everything together in a segment brimming with unexpected fun and energy. The songs, skillfully choreographed by Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck, pay sly tribute to all kinds of musical comedy styles and conventions, with allusions to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Aaron Copland's Rodeo. Best of all, there's a gorgeous Rogers and Astaire-style duet, "A Tough Act to Follow," which is equally gorgeously sung and danced by the lovely and graceful Erica Sweany as Niki and Jim Poulos's light-footed Cioffi. (Cioffi, incidentally, is the role that made a musical comedy star of the inimitable David Hyde Pierce when Curtains hit Broadway in 2007.) This duet provides such pure and dizzy pleasure that you want it to go on and on and on.
Still, this is a lesser-known musical for a reason. Some of the songs, such as "The Woman's Dead" and "What Kind of Man," are amusing; "Show People" is pretty nifty, but also an unhappy reminder of the far better "There's No Business Like Show Business." And some flat-footed songs either get repeated or seem to go on forever in the first place. The dialogue is sort of deliberately dumb-funny — this is, after all, a sendup full of '50s-style puns and wisecracks — but sometimes the dumb overwhelms the funny, as when a character says of her murdered husband, "That's the first time my husband was ever accused of being hung."
But designer Brian Mallgrave's set is witty and bright, as are Clare Henkel's costumes. The cast is very strong — good dancers, fine voices — with standout performances from Poulos, Sweany, Lauren Shealy as Georgia and Jeffrey Roark as Aaron. Director Gavin Mayer has minimized the problems, maximized the triumphs, and staged Curtains with terrific elan.