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THEATER REVIEW: Cast hits mark, though ‘Curtains’ has drawbacks

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“Curtains” / Mac-Haydn Theatre

THE MUSICAL THEATER composer John Kander is 91. We all know his “Cabaret” and his “Chicago,” but there are prolific Kander-years since, before and between. Many of those shows were built for extraordinary female stars (Liza Minnelli, Lauren Bacall, Gwen Verdon, and perhaps most of all, Chita Rivera.)

Kander has become the grand old man of musical creators, admired and beloved for smarts, dignity and old-fashioned human decency by the people who work with him. What does it mean that his main characters are often so bereft of those very characteristics? Witness the unsavory fame- and money-grabbers of “Chicago” and, most of all, the cold, revenge-obsessed woman (played by Chita Rivera) in “The Visit.” What attracted this composer to the pain, depression and sexual-abuse-trauma suffered by the main character in his 2015 show “Kid Victory”?

Now running at Mac-Haydn Theatre, “Curtains” (by Kander, Ebb, and Stone) is Kander’s 2006 musical about a theater company preparing a show called “Robin Hood.” The characters are something of a departure.

First of all, “Curtains” is peopled by some nice characters—a sweet ingénue (played here by Rachel Pantazis), a leading lady without excessive ego (played by Leigh Martha Klinger). There is the company’s composer-character, Aaron, attractively played by Steve Hassmer. This good guy supplies the audience’s first emotional engagement with the show.

It takes a while to get to Hassmer/Aaron, because, up until then, the show is occupied with parody/pastiche and murder. (For now, never mind about the murders.) “Curtains” is a show-business show that begins by mocking Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma,” complete with pseudo Agnes DeMille choreography and phony western accents. Costumer Jimm Halliday contributes to the mock with squash-yellow circle skirts (puffed out with volumes of stiff petticoats) and an abundance of turquoise satin.

Then Hassmer arrives to give us a real person singing a touching, well-written song, “I Miss the Music.” It is about longing for a lost, warm, stimulating, artistic and personal collaboration. (I seem to recall that Hassmer usually sings roles set in the lower register; but he negotiates these higher notes with a full, rich sound and a perhaps Kander-style dignity.)

About the opening: It may be impossible to do good musical numbers that are supposed to be bad imitations of good musical numbers. “Curtains” tries, and does not succeed. It is too easy to slip into a bad musical number. I blame the original writers, not Mac-Haydn folks.

For a composer of musicals to honor and make use of Broadway musical traditions is generally a good thing–as long as s/he keeps nudging the boundaries. Audiences love strong tunes, half-step modulations, pull-backs, big, luscious voices, varieties of tempo, familiar as well as startlingly fresh harmonic progressions, rhythmic thrust. “Curtains” has a bit too much honoring and not enough nudging. It’s a Kander aberration. Thank goodness he has since moved forward and backward to more compelling and adventurous places.

The plot deals with the “Robin Hood” company, which is getting murdered by killer-critics and killer-killers. To the rescue comes cop Frank Cioffi, played by the marvelous Colin Pritchard. I can’t decide if Pritchard gets cast only in loveable roles or if he simply makes all his characters loveable. In any case, he pulls off some improbable tasks: He’s a charming song and dance man who can act better than Gene Kelly; and, in a satisfying (and improbable) plot twist, he solves the murders, redirects the show toward viability, and brings musical numbers together for a rousing climax. What more can you ask of a guy?

Among other personages, the very able Monica M. Wemitt is stuck in a rather thankless role and forced to tell us a gazillion times that theater producers are in it only for the money. “It’s a business,” “It’s a business.” Yeah, we got it after the first 10 times.

Thin, unsupportive orchestrations don’t help any of the singers much, but they deliver anyway. There is good singing from everybody, and it is fun to hear it from individual chorus members when they stand in the aisles near your seats.

It is also a pleasure to watch Chelsea Lynne Myers move, especially in a too-short pas de deux, which also demonstrates that choreographer Courtney Laine Self has more at the tip of her quiver than the usual Broadway moves.

“Curtains” runs through June 16. Reserve seats at (518) 392-9292 or at www.machaydntheatre.org.

Incidentally, John Kander had a new show in 2018. Of course then he was only 90.

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