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Rewrite Amidst Mayhem: Curtains at Cockpit

Theater critics are not a universally-loved breed, but surely no one is tougher on them than show people. And Curtains: The Musical Mystery Whodunit, a show of, by, and to a large degree for, show people, is exceedingly tough on theater critics. There are actually songs called "Show People," an anthem of self-appreciation, and "What Kind of Man?" a wallow in critic-hatred. And that hatred proceeds from there throughout the show. So it would be a temptation for this critic to return the favor, and write something deploring Cockpit in Court's new production of Curtains. Alas, that is not possible. This production is exceedingly hard to dislike.

That is particularly impressive because Curtains is a heavy lift. 15 featured speaking and/or singing parts, plus a substantial mixed singing and dancing ensemble, a sizeable orchestra, multiple costume changes for the ensemble, and several sets, including some special effects. This is all in service of a "high-concept" dramatic structure, a play outside of a play, and in the outside play, the inside play is being rewritten as we watch, while a murder mystery is being solved - or rather mysteries, as the bodies stack up. This is no trivial confection, nor a chamber musical; it may be a musical comedy with no pretensions to seriousness and no big point to make, but this is a full-fledged big show. A lot of things have to be happening all the time to make us laugh, and they have to be done right. Cockpit, under the able direction of Tom Wyatt, almost always delivers.

The setting for the outer musical is a theater in Boston in 1959, where the inner musical, a sort of pastiche of Oklahoma! and Annie Get Your Gun, is in tryouts. During curtain calls, the leading lady (Dori Armor Watson), unsubtly based on Ethel Merman, is assassinated. It quickly emerges that: a) the play was itself being assassinated - by the leading lady's lack of talent and a lineup of songs that hadn't gelled; b) everyone in the company, backstage and onstage, had a reason to kill her. Enter Detective Frank Cioffi of the Boston police, a stage-struck everyman (played with a nice average-guy air by Chuck Graham). It soon falls to Cioffi to solve the murder(s), recast and direct the rewrite of the play, reunite a songwriting team who have become star-crossed lovers, and maybe even get the girl.

The show is the work of four creative forces. It was conceived by Peter Stone, who wrote comedy-mystery movies that got an edge from a scary quality, almost missing in the final product, except for one murder that takes place in a darkened theater that is almost a direct quote from a killing in a darkened Comedie Francais in Stone's Charade. But Stone died; Curtains was then worked on by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who could do musicals with pizzazz and no small degree of raunch, all quite visible here. Ebb died, and his place was taken by Rupert Holmes, songwriter ("The Pina Colada Song"), creator of musical mysteries including The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and mystery novelist.

With such mixed parentage, the final product is a bit uneven, but that's not terrible. Perhaps owing to the fact that Holmes apparently had the last word, the overall tone is more comic than sinister, with a ton of theatrical in-jokes and outlook (exemplified by the critic-hatred). But any loss there is made up for with some really elegant plotting (one suspects Holmes' hand) that entwines developments in the investigation and the rewrite - and with lots of opportunities for the comedy and song and dance people to do their things.

There's no shortage of talented performers to fulfill that mission. Among them, Liz Boyer Hunnicutt as Carmen Bernstein, the producer, a bully with an unexpected soft center. Ms. Hunnicutt is a large woman who can use her body as well as her voice to intimidate, and the casting, pairing her with a cheating and despised husband portrayed by the diminutive Albert J. Boeren, makes for great physical comedy.

Holly Pasciullo, who portrays the lyricist in the songwriting duo thrust unexpectedly into the role of leading lady in the show-within-a-show pairs a great voice with mature dramatic and comic intelligence. (I'd love to watch her play Beatrice in Much Ado.) And Becca Vorvoulas, as would-be ingenue, was a pleasure to watch arguing and hear singing; her dancing (she is given the most balletic and challenging role) may have fallen a little short, though it was hard to tell if the lifts that almost didn't work belonged on her scorecard or those of her partners.

With such a large cast, I'm leaving out others without meaning to slight them.

I was also tremendously impressed with the costumes, which call forth a terrific range in the designer (James J. Fasching): cancan dresses to tuxes to cowboy gear to pajamas, and all manner of things in between. Everything the actors wore looked great, as did they sets they trod, and the lighting that illuminated or, as in the darkened theater scene, obscured them.

The only half-baked component was the orchestra. To my ears, there's something wrong with the orchestra pit that causes it to swallow more of the sound than we would expect. But beyond that, the ensemble seemed to have some trouble staying on the beat, or sometimes on pitch. It was good enough not to drag the performers down, but not to give them the best platform.

Overall, the production was tremendously impressive for a non-Equity regional/community theater that only operates during the summers. But at 38 years of age, Cockpit obviously has developed the moves and the skills to pull this off.

Next time, though, they'd better come up with something a little more complimentary about critics.


Curtains: The Musical Mystery Whodunit. Book by Rupert Holmes, Music by John Kander, Lyrics by Fred Ebb, Original Book and Concept by Peter Stone, Additional Lyrics by John Kander and Rupert Holmes. Fridays through Sundays, through August 8. Tickets $28 to $32. . 443-840-1369. Cockpit in the Court Summer Theatre, Community College of Baltimore County Essex, B Building, 7201 Rossville Boulevard, Essex, MD 21221. Strong adult language, suggestive dancing.



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