MINCING MAN : Erik Stein steals the show as theater director Christopher Belling, frequently accompanied by his pet Purryl.
Independently, musicals and theatrical who-dun-its demand quite a bit from their audiences in terms of suspension of disbelief. But throw the genres together and you’ve got a recipe for absurdity, and comedy, though of a less serious order. PCPA’s production of Curtains, showing at the Solvang Theater June 17 through July 3, raises the bar for musicals while demanding very little of its audience.
As suggested by the title, the show is heavy on metanarrative commentary; the characters are the cast, crew, and financial backers of an off-Broadway musical called Robbin’ Hood of the Old West. The curtains open on the final scene of the first incarnation of Robbin’ Hood, a play so poorly written and acted that PCPA seems to be sharing a joke with the audience, asking ‘aren’t we a thousand times better than this type of theater’ while knowing the answer the entire time.
EMBRACE THE DRIVE: PCPA hosts Curtains at the Solvang Theater June 17 through July 3. For additional information visit pcpa.org.
Within minutes the issue of the appalling production is resolved when the lead, one Jessica Cranshaw (played by Mara Lefler) is killed, commencing the who-dun-it aspect of the play as well as opening the floodgates for a bevy of jokes at Cranshaw’s expense. The best and most acidic of these quips—“And what have they done with the killer…I mean, does he get some kind of trophy?”—come from the play’s flamboyant director Christopher Belling, played by Erik Stein as if he had been born for no other purpose than to mince across the stage while carrying a fluffy white cat.
On the one hand, Curtains is a play built on stereotypes—the songwriting team that broke up when their marriage failed reunited for one last show, the wealthy patroness who makes endless jokes at her husband’s expense, the overbearing ingénue desperate to climb her way to the top, the impossibly gay theater director, etc. etc.—but it’s so impeccably staged that you forgive the stereotypes or, better yet, learn to love them.
PHOTO BY CLINT BERSUCH
HOT OFF THE PRESSES : Carmen Bernstein (Kitty Balay Genge), Georgia Hendricks (Melinda Parrett) and Aaron Fox (Michael Jenkinson) receive some unsavory reviews for their production of Robbin’ Hood, prompting an unfavorable review of critics.
For example, composer Aaron Fox (Michael Jenkinson) and lyricist Georgia Hendricks (Melinda Parrett) open the play as a predictably bitter couple. Their marriage has failed and their creative partnership is on the rocks. From their first painful exchange, it isn’t difficult to predict how their relationship will change throughout the course of the production. And yet, somehow, Fox’s melancholy rendition of “I Miss the Music,” equal parts epiphany and lament, tugs rather forcefully at the heartstrings. Perhaps they are a couple you’ve met before, in plays or movies, but that shouldn’t stop you from rooting for a reconciliation.
And if Niki Harris is yet another sweet, beautiful, and talented performer, if a bit dim, well, you forgive her that because her company is right to rave about her star quality. And it’s impossible for a character to have star quality without a truly solid performance, in this case from Karin Hendricks. At the opposite end of the spectrum Bambi Bernét (Natasha Harris) can’t seem to convince anyone that she’s got what it takes to make it in show business—not the director who seems to take special delight in insulting her, not even her mother who makes liberal use of every available opportunity to publicly humiliate her. And she’s so eager, so aggressive in her pursuit of success, that it’s kind of fun to watch her get slapped down. It’s even kind of nice to watch her succeed, finally.
PHOTO BY CLINT BERSUCH
MORE THAN A BADGE : Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Andrew Philpot) is charged with solving a murder and unofficially reviving a bad play, and he just might manage both.
Then there’s Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, played by Andrew Philpot who successfully captures the Boston cop’s dual interests as theater lover and detective. It is Cioffi who sets Curtains on its metanarrative path, with a wink and a nod to show business, and especially to that “special kind of people known as show people.” With his wide-eyed, gee golly appreciation for theater—and Niki Harris in particular—Cioffi becomes an unexpected ally in the effort to resurrect the play with a new female lead. Being star struck interferes with Cioffi’s ability to solve the crime, but it also leads to some fantastic self-congratulatory numbers to show people. Which, fortunately, the production does merit; Curtains highlights the performers’ many skills, particularly singing and dancing, without their acting abilities disappearing altogether as is sometimes the case with musicals.
On the downside, Cioffi’s chronic inability to recall that he is supposed to be solving a murder sometimes crosses the fine line between comedy and inanity. And the ending is really, truly, beyond absurd. To be fair, most audiences at a who-dun-it are expecting to hear the detective twist logic like taffy. But the drive to resolve the musical amicably stretches the writers in a direction that leaves everything a little too intact considering everything that has happened. That’s all that can be revealed of the ending, as the ensemble wisely concludes their performance on an admonishment “not to reveal who killed who…or it just might be curtains for you.”
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is a hard act to follow. Send your who-dun-it theories to email@example.com.