Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) became Broadway and West End perennials and prize-strewn movies for composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb. But Curtains (2006) has struggled. Ebb died before completion and Rupert Holmes helped out, with Kander unusually writing some songs alone.
There are three layers in the show. Admirers of Cabaret and Chicago may at first fear the worst, as the cast hoofs through a sub-Oklahoma chorus line relocating Robin Hood to the American midwest – a “cowboy” show both literally and in the sense of being substandard.
This proves to be a musical within the musical, though: the show Robbin’ Hood is flopping in Boston, when a murder occurs on stage. One of the best-ever Kander and Ebb numbers, The Woman’s Dead – a furious fugue in which the creative team review their late colleague – triggers a sung-and-danced whodunnit. In a neat gag, homicide cop Frank Cioffi is a showbiz obsessive, keener to fix the problem with the finale ensemble than nail the perpetrator.
The last level is a touching masterclass in memoir from Kander, Ebb and Holmes. Scores are settled – the cheeks of critics, directors, producers and actors will burn – and insights are shared. One show-within-the-show song is performed four times in different versions, as the team reworks it. Kander’s solo song I Miss the Music poignantly describes a composer who has lost his lyricist.
As Cioffi, Jason Manford, best known as a standup comic and TV host, has real musical charm and command. Rebecca Lock is funny and punchy as a producer unsure why serial killings should stop the show. The show’s hilarious fictional director Christopher Belling, who always steals the credit, must here share it with real-life Curtains director Paul Foster, for giving audiences the missing link in Kander & Ebb’s trilogy of “C” shows. Though not the equal of the other two, Curtains is a dazzling curiosity for musical theatre completists and a smart and warm-hearted entertainment for all.