Show-tunes, Intrigue, Romance and Murrrrrder: UMMTA’s “Curtains” by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on May 12, 2011

5


It’s pretty dangerous to attend a production of the 2007 musical Curtains as a critic. The subjects of Curtains are not the media’s friends – in fact, there’s a whole song devoted to this concept (“What Kind of Man”). Despite this, having never seen the show performed live, I decided to shove my pink notebook covertly into my bag, bring a mate/assistant-reviewer along for cover, and brave this critic-unfriendly production.

Lucky I did. The University of Melbourne Musical Theatre Association (UMMTA) produces two student-run, student-performed productions each year. In the last two years, UMMTA has facilitated performances of Into The Woods, Camelot, The Wedding Singer and A New Brain. But so far, Curtains has been the most fun to attend.

UMMTA's Curtains poster

So Curtains, from John Kander and Fred Ebb (creators of Chicago), is a show-within-a-show-within-a-murder-mystery-within-a-show. Phew. We open in Boston, 1959, at the Colonial Theatre’s premier performance of new musical Robbin’ Hood! When the show’s appalling leading lady, Jessica Cranshaw (Grace Agnew), is murdered on-stage during the final bows, the theatre is “quarantined” for investigation. Stuck inside are the show’s disgruntled cast and crew and a homicide detective, Frank Coiffi (Josiah Lulham), with a taste for the theatre. It’s all terribly whodunnit. Cioffi gets to work uncovering the killer’s identity, ironing out Robbin’ Hood‘s kinks to help it get to Broadway, and wooing Jessica’s pretty understudy Niki (Emma Hoy). All this before the show’s reopening in 24 hours-time. Phew times A BILLION.

Jessica Cranshaw (Grace Agnew) and company in "Wide Open Spaces"

Curtains, as a show, has questionable elements. Some of the songs, in particular chorus numbers “Wide Open Spaces” and “Thataway!”, are less-than-superb, and it relies on a series of (hysterical) one-liners to carry the story through. I’d be interested to discover whether some of the particularly poor song-writing was stylistic. Perhaps Kander and Ebb were working off the show-within-a-show element by making some numbers meant for Robbin’ Hood! bad on purpose? Regardless, UMMTA’s attempt at making the best of these sometimes sloppy ingredients is certainly admirable.

L-R: Gerogia Hendricks (Nicola Guzzardi), Oscar Shapiro (Henry Shaw), Aaron Fox (Henry Brett) and Carmen Bernstein (Anna Charalambous) in "What Kind of Man"

The singing was, across the board, well above average for an amateur show. I was particularly impressed by the male leads, all of whom sang incredibly well. There was no real issue with pitch/intonation and most of the mains were strong and emphatic in style. The chorus was energetic and often engaging – no cardboard cutouts hanging blankly at the back of the stage. Props should go to Dylan for his direction here. Any cast of 36 is difficult to coordinate, and he carried out this element with extreme finesse. There was also a brilliant bit of staging at the beginning where the curtain closed and re-opened on the cast bowing to the back of the stage (signalling we had entered the backstage world). The lighting at times bordered on spectacular, dressing up a sometimes drab set (the kind of set entirely appropriate for a production of this scale). And whilst the band lost their tuning somewhat towards the end of Act I, they were mostly great, and certainly the biggest and best sound I’ve heard from an UMMTA band.

Unfortunately there were some – mainly technical – issues bringing down the tone of this otherwise delightful show. Someone really needed to sit the costume team down and teach them how to hem a dress. I was particularly unimpressed by the hack-job on a great jade suit (where the skirt was chopped above the knee, wonky, and not hemmed). Lauri Uldrikis’ choreography was at times ho-hum, and the staging of “Thataway!” was downright inappropriate. We were flashed incessantly by the 14-odd female cast who insisted on lifting their skirts and exposing garter stockings and black underpants every 10 seconds for the entire song. I am (hopefully) not a prude, but I found this UBER UNCOMFORTABLE in an already musically-unsound number. Some of director Brad Dylan’s staging could also have used a little inspiration. The smaller numbers were often questionably set out.

Members of the company in era-appropriate lounging positions!

What really let down the show was the horrendous sound design. Microphones popped and cracked throughout, there was MEGA static and the otherwise strong band was poorly-balanced by the sound-team. This was a thorougly-distracting element, unfortunate in an otherwise engaging production.

The most impressive and uplifting element was undoubtedly the comedy. This was carried by some fantastic individual performances, however I can see that the mastery was really a joint effort. David Miles as O-T-T director Chris Belling was sublime, delivering his lines with break-neck efficiency, dripping with sarcasm and completely on the ball. Cheered from his first moment on-stage, he was certainly a crowd-favourite, and clearly a student-theatre regular, (or friends with most of the Wednesday night audience). I found Henry Brett compelling, though sadly miscast in his role as composer Aaron Fox. He commanded a heartfelt presence on-stage, and provided some much needed calm to balance some of the bigger performances, whilst his singing and manner were lovely.

Henry Brett as Aaron Fox in "I Miss The Music"

Anna Charalambous and Shaun Fitzgerald were both well-suited to their roles as producers Carmen and Sidney Bernstein. Fitzgerald was appropriately oily and Charalambous had a wonderfully big voice (though less self-consicousness would’ve lifted her performance). I found Nicola Guzzardi average as lyricist and accidental star Georgia Hendricks. Her voice and acting were fine, but she was out-shined by other, more special performances.Though his accent was terribly inconsistent, choreographer Bobby (Grant Pepper – excellent name!) was a divine dancer, whose talents were unfortunately not shown often enough. Emma Hoy was sweet and hysterical as Niki, and worked seamlessly with the show’s star, Josiah Lulham. As Detective Frank Cioffi, Lulham was a total show-stopper. Lulham had a fabulous rat pack-style voice that suited the era, and his songs, very well. The balance between his impeccable comic timing and measured theatricality anchored the large cast perfectly. His and Hoy’s romantic moments were incredibly sweet, and their rendition of “A Tough Act To Follow” was my favourite number.

Detective Frank Cioffi (Josiah Lulham) and company in "Show People"

Sweet, in fact, is a perfect way to describe the production as a whole. Musical theatre is incredibly tough to pull off at a student level. Add being hamstringed by a sometimes inconsistent book and score, and you’d think UMMTA would’ve had a hard time cobbling together a good show of Curtains. Dylan’s cast and crew did more than pull it off, they provided a totally enjoyable, funny and sweet production that I would certainly recommend attending.

UMMTA’s Curtains is being performed at the Union House Theatre at The University of Melbourne. The remaining shows are Thursday 12th, Friday 13th and Saturday 14th May at 7:30 pm, and a matinee on Saturday 14th at 2 pm. Tickets are $25/adult, $18/concession. Book online at https://secure.ticketstar.com.au/ummta/, or just rock up. Catch this show before it’s gone, it’s a good’n. 

Curtains was reviewed by Matilda on its Wednesday 11 May performance, with the assistance of Victorian Opera conductor Dan Carter. 

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