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« Super-Duper Delegates | Main | The Machine »


No, this isn't how the Democrats' feel about foreign intelligence gathering. I was in New York this weekend, and finally saw a Broadway play on Broadway.

It's called Curtains, and it's an entertaining little musical that's being asked to punch way above its weight.

Curtains is showing at the Hirschfeld Theater at 45th and 8th Ave. (This is the same theater that hosted my favorite musical you've never heard of, "Milk and Honey.") It's an original musical comedy, starring David Hyde Pierce (who for some reason doesn't mind using his middle name) as a Boston police lieutenant, investigating a murder on the set of a stage play.

The play gets creamed in the papers, the star of the vehicle gets offed, and the good lieutenant is sent in to sort out the mess. Of course, he's a theater-buff and sometime community-play actor, who's in love with the understudy. The lyricist and the composer are a separated and possibly divorced couple. The lyricist is in love with the play's leading man, and the producers, an older couple, aren't getting on so well, either. Not to mention the critic for the Globe.

Hijinks, romance (and a couple of more murders) ensue.

The plot travels on parallel tracks - solving the murders, several love interests, and saving the faux show. It's hard to manage all this plot, and the mystery side doesn't really get a whole lot of momentum until the second act, when Lt. Cioffi finally starts confronting individual characters. It's not a flaw, exactly, but you do sort of notice that all the questioning takes place off-stage in the "Green Room." That's fine, but it relegates the mystery to maguffin status for an hour.

Curtains's music aspires to be Jerome Kern and Richard Rogers, maybe with a dash of Stephen Sondheim, rather than Andrew Lloyd Webber, and this strikes many of us as an improvement. All the songs could have been written before 1960, and most of them sound like the 1930s. The same team wrote Cabaret and Chicago, two great musicals from Before the Fall, and the songs are generally cheerful, upbeat, and stand-alone, rather than the operatic smear that you get in Phantom and its kin. Nobody sings the dialog here.

As for Mr. Hyde-Pierce, since I haven't seen any other shows this year, I have no idea whether or not he deserved the Tony for this performance, but I do know it was a good one. Very, very good. The role is still fresh, so he hasn't worn groove in it that will jar the audience if he misses one. (I remember seeing Topol as Tevye about 20 years ago, and if he had changed even one "biddy-bum," it would have rankled through the rest of the first act and well into intermission.) He's believable in the role, sings well, can dance a little (OK, a lot).

Then there's that whole Niles thing. Now moving from Moon-struck shrink to star-struck cop isn't that big a stretch. But the very very thick Boston Police Irish accent reminds you that this is a hero, not a schlemiel. Once in a while, he goes into the insecure non-boyfriend mode, but as stage acting is done mostly with the body, while TV acting is almost all facial, even this demonstrates some versatility, rather than failure.

That's the good news. But there's bad news, too. The musical-within-a-musical conceit means that two or three production numbers are for the interior play, rather than having to help move the plot along. And that comedy vein was tapped out, sealed up, and slated for reclamation round about the time of Aeschylus. As for the brassy Mrs. Bernstein, the writers establish her personality by having her swear like a sailor and complain about her husband's - inadequacies. It's cheap and lazy and the audience deserves better.

The show wants you to think of it as a throwback to the days of the Great White Way, but because it's neither 1930 nor 1960 nor 1975, they can't do it without winking at the audience. There's a nice dream-dance sequence with dry ice and everything, and the opening pose is a none-too-subtle quote from Gene Kelly and Cyd Charise in "Singin' in the Rain." That should be enough. But the writers don't trust the audience, so the leading man and leading lady shake off the dream-hangover by marveling that they had the same dream! It's symptomatic of the too-self-aware post-modern irony affliction that substitutes for actual creativity, and has led to Broadway staging movies, when Hollywood used to film stage plays.

If all this sounds as though I'm panning it, I'm not. Curtains is an enjoyable evening or afternoon, as long as you remember that you're watching Most Happy Fella and not South Pacific.

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