"Curtains" up, up — and away with a helium-light comedy that is as loving a laughing gas as exists to fill a Broadway theater with a good case of the giddies all season.
It's all a bit of a welcomed March Madness of a musical: One of the final four shows penned by John Kander and Fred Ebb before the latter lyricist died in 2004, "Curtains" calls on the incredible creds of Kander, as well as Rupert Holmes, homing in on a great book and supplying additional lyrics along with Kander.
And what have they got? In the case of Holmes, inspired by the original book and concept by the late Peter Stone: Murder, he wrote.
A back-stabbing backstage musical with David Hyde Pierce hiding none of the talent he showcased in "Spamalot" as a debonair devilish song-and-dance man, "Curtains" opens with an overture bound to razzle-dazzle 'em; even the conductor helps conduct part of the murder investigation, which has landed the opening-night's leading lady in the ultimate flop sweat: dead.
But this is backstage Boston, not Chicago, and if anyone's gunning for that leading lady — who goes up on her lines more often than the sumptuous red curtain — it must be someone within the cast and crew, all of whom have legitimate theater reasons to see her play dead. For real.
It's all so cleverly conceived; but it's no mystery this mystery musical should work so well given that Holmes hit homers and took home Tonys for "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," which played at being a detective, too.
There's so much to like here — especially when they turn up the stereo on the stereotyped Jewish producers. But then, who better to light a candle to Shabbat and get a Rosh Hashanah rush from producing than Sidney and Carmen Bernstein — burnished by the incandescent Debra Monk and Ernie Sabella — as genuine Jewish jugglers, with the business of Broadway in one hand and … the business of Broadway in the other.
These are "Show People" — one of many tunes that score with the characteristic Kander/Ebb bite — who consider the stage their synagogue and Broadway their bimah, even if Sid's depicted as more apt to prey on showgirls than show up at shul trailing a tallis.
Of course, the caricatures that line the Broadway theater's walls offstage — this is the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, after all — draw attention to the coveted caricatures that all these "Show People" are — larger than life and giants in their own minds.
But the aging image of Jewish entrepreneur had legitimate entree in the 1959 show-biz world, in which "Curtains" courts the past conceits so creatively. The Bernsteins are clever burlesques of the old school; then again, "let me entertain you" is what they do on stage to applause and acclaim.
They are the producers that Bialystock and Bloom would become if they had put their own 401(k)s on the bottom line instead of patting the bottoms of their investors — well, Bialystock, anyway — from Little Old Lady Land.
Old Broadway cedes to modern-day Broadway here in its bow to the bounty of riches that hindsight has offered. Yet Kander and Ebb have always known the ebb and flow of the paired phenom that is Broadway and Hollywood, offering a backstage pass to both the bonhomie and bile that often saturate a soundstage. From "Cabaret" to "Chicago" to "Woman of the Year" to "Kiss of the Spider Woman," their valentine kisses to the biz are often light kiss-offs, too, albeit tendered lovingly.
Deserving their cacophonous curtain calls in this one are Monk, Pierce and the piercingly purposefully shrill Edward Hibbert, as the musical's dandy of a director, a fop of the flop that is the musical within-the-musical "Robbin' Hood." Of course, "Robin' Hood" would be a sure-fire failure without the help of Pierce's cop/show doctor who knows a critical hit when he sees one.
(Pierce and Hibbert work wonderfully together; someone really should find them a sitcom of their own after "Curtains." Oh. Right.)
Finally, what a true delight to find a show that defines "Curtains" on its way up rather than on its way down, one as richly textured as the fabric of the theater's own red curtain, culling images and memories of why "what I did for love" is not just the sole anthem of a musical's chorus line, but of its entire cast and crew.