When lyricist Fred Ebb died in 2004, it was left to his long-time collaborator, composer John Kander, to finish writing Curtains. This fact adds poignancy to an otherwise unremarkable number in the show. Called "I Miss the Music," it is sung by the male half of an estranged husband-and-wife songwriting team.
“When you’re writing a song and you’ve a partner, the room is filled with jokes and chatter...” sings Aaron Fox (Andy Coxon) of the good old times when he and Georgia (Carley Stenson) made music together. Just imagining the impact of that sentiment on the bereaved Kander, who with Ebb created Cabaret and Chicago, generates more emotion than the rest of this show put together. For emotion is conspicuous by its absence in Curtains, as they tend to be in whodunits.
If it were set on a train instead of backstage in a Boston theatre, and if the suspects were passengers instead of the cast and crew of a new musical (with cowboys and ho-downs and a score written by the aforementioned Aaron and Georgina), the show might be called Murder on the Orient Express. And rather like the film versions of Agatha Christie’s classic, Curtains entertains without ever making the fate of its protagonists matter a great deal.
And yet its central character, one Lt. Frank Cioffi, here played by the immensely likeable Jason Manford, is undoubtedly a wonderful creation. A musical theatre lover who likes to indulge in a spot of am-dram himself, the Lieutenant enters his latest crime scene, where a much hated leading lady has been killed after her curtain call, with all the authority of a fan hoping for an autograph.
Cioffi is half sleuth and half musical theatre obsessive. Most of the time he doesn’t know whether to arrest his suspects or suggest ways in which their dance numbers might be improved. And Manford plays him with exactly the right mixture of guileless enthusiasm for the art form he loves and a detective’s worldly knowledge of human flaws and motives.
Paul Foster’s surefooted production handles the show-within-a-show transitions with aplomb. One minute we are watching cowboys and girls in a Seven Brothers and Seven Brides-style production, the next we are behind the performances facing the unpainted backside of scenery flats. More disorientating is the tone. After the leading lady dies, the company mourns her passing with the number "The Woman’s Dead." It is sung with as much grief and regret as the women murderers in Chicago sing their hymn to mitigating circumstances “Cell Block Tango” – which is to say no grief and regret at all.
The result here is a love letter to musical theatre, but one that makes fun of theatrical archetypes, from the vainglorious director (here played by Samuel Holmes) to the hard-nosed producer (Rebecca Lock) and all the egos in between. If he were not in it, it is the kind of show Lt. Frank Cioffi would love.