Although it ran for over a year on Broadway and won a Tony award for David Hyde Pierce as stage-struck detective Frank Cioffi, Curtains (2006) falls into the quite large category of wildly imperfect musicals by John Kander and Fred Ebb you don't mind seeing once.
Others - Flora the Red Menace, The Rink, even Steel Pier -- have much better songs, but Robert McWhir's spirited revival at the Landor is a good example of a fringe production getting away with murder in cramped circumstances. And it's a pleasure to hear unadulterated, undistorted voices and an adept small band giving it their best shot.
The librettist, Peter Stone, died on the job, followed by lyricist Fred Ebb, and finally the show. No wonder there's a calumnious song about mean-minded critics; you always have to blame someone, though composer Kander turned misfortune to advantage in the deeply touching "I Miss the Music."
The show itself is a backstage mash-up of Kiss Me, Kate, Agatha Christie and Noises Off (the Playbill programme for the Wild West show-within-a-show, "Robbin' Hood" lacks the wit, literacy and precision of Frayn's notes for "Nothing On"). And the year is 1959.
The theatrical setting of pulleys, scrims, half a proscenium and prompt corner is the ingenious work of designer Martin Thomas, while McWhir's staging is full of sharp angles and brilliant get-out-of-that choreography by Robbie O'Reilly.
The off-tune, over-the-hill leading lady drops dead at the curtain call, prompting a tart company lament ("The skies are blue, her lips are, too") and bristling hierarchical re-positioning among the cast, the producers and the show's married composer and lyricist; the latter, Georgia Hendricks (Fiona O'Carroll) is in love with the lead actor and hastily stitched into the dead diva's Madam Marian costume.
Enter Jeremy Legat's immensely likeable detective who, of course, falls in love with one of the actresses, Niki Harris (Bronwyn Andrews). The cop takes over, discussing motivation onstage and off like a weird amalgam of Perry Mason and Hal Prince, easily ousting the flouncing English director (Bryan Kennedy as a sort of super-charged Declan Donnellan) who rapidly becomes a leading suspect ("Well, it's an honour just to be nominated").
There are several jaunty, open air chorus numbers, a brutish paean to commercial theatre by Buster Skeggs' knock-'em-dead producer, fine singing by Leo Andrew as the composer and neat dancing by Thomas Sutcliffe (at last: a Tom Sutcliffe who's not a critic!) as Rob Hood and excellent musical direction by Michael Webborn.
The score's enjoyably crude and patchy, the lyrics way off Ebb's best, but there's plenty to enjoy and there's always an audience for songs about show people, skewed love and, yes, even critics. But unlike Kiss Me, Kate, or indeed Noises Off, the inner and outer shows never really mesh; in the words of another song, they're a tough act to follow. Too tough, as it happens.
(Photo: Francis Loney)