Musicals are definitely not dead. Chicago proved that when the musical made a splash as a movie, garnering awards for its stars. This December, another musical loosely based on history also opened, Dream Girls.
Chicago was a 1975 musical written by Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb with music by John Kander and lyrics by Ebb. It was based on a play by the same name written by Maurine Dallas Watkins who had covered the Chicago 1924 trials of Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner.
Kander and Ebb also created the 1966 Broadway musical Cabaret (book by Joe Masteroff) and Bob Fosse made that into an Academy Award-winning 1972 musical movie starring Liza Minnelli. Yet while the gender-bending, socio-political Cabaret and the brassy, cynical “Chicago” helped redefine the musical, their last work, Curtains which premiered at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles was a sweet Valentine to musicals of yesteryear.
A more recent tradition than taking successful musicals to the silverscreen is musical movies becoming musicals for live theater. Hairspray went from cult movie to Broadway just as Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Such is the case with Sister Act: The Musical, which made its world premiere at the Pasadena Playhouse.
If you remember, Sister Act was a 1992 musical starring Whoopi Goldberg. Now Whoopi isn’t exactly Tina Turner – short skirts and sex appeal. Yet in the Pasadena Playhouse production, co-produced by the Alliance Theater of Atlanta, Deloris Van Cartier (Dawnn Lewis) is thin and sexy and the first musical number sets up a three-girl act (with Patina Renea Miller and Badia Farha) where the front rows gets an upskirt view thanks to choreography by Marguerite Derricks and costume design by Garry Lennon. There’s some irony here: after Dream Girls detailing the rejection of the big-voiced big girl and Hairspray about a big girl becoming popular on a dance show, this production decided to go conventional.
The basic plot is the same. A mediocre African-American lounge singer for a low-rent club witnesses her African-American boyfriend, Curtis Shank (Harrison White) killing a man. Thanks to Sgt. Eddie Souther (David Jennings), she enters a witness protection program in a convent that is suffering financial problems. She adds some contemporary flair to the church and attracts more people within the community, revitalizing both the convent and the community as well as turning her life around.
Joseph Howard’s movie script was a more subtle exchange of ideas, that there was a need for both the religious and the secular, each revitalizing the other. The singer learned about self-sacrifice and gained respect for the moral strong and fervently faithful sisters and the nuns became more in touch with the current culture. Alan Menken’s music has a steady, driving beat although Glenn Slater’s lyrics don’t particularly inspire.
The book by Cheri Steinkellner and Bill Steinkellner provide us with nun archtypes. There’s the tough cookie older nun, Sister Mary Lazarus (Audrie Neenan) and and the overweight, happy nun (Amy K. Murray). We also have the indecisive ingenue Sister Mary Robert (Beth Malone) who declares in her solo “Life I Never Led” that “I won’t go on playing dead.” This hardly shows respect for a chosen way of life. This isn’t The Sound of Music. Here the nuns saw the Virgin Mary in cereal, wanted to look slim and trim in black or were afraid to be part of the real world (“How I got the Calling”).
Likewise, in this musical, the conflict is between the oppressive Mother Superior (Elizabeth Ward Land) and the hip Cartier who helps everyone express themselves. Somehow, we are to believe that every girl really needs a pair of purple platform boots, even though disco is dead and they look like something a pole dancer would be wearing. Some of the comedy is at the incongruity of religious sisters getting into rock-n-roll. This is a musical production that goes for flash, the black and the white and the obvious laughs.
Garry Lennon has fun with Shank’s wardrobe, which couldn’t be brighter or more flamboyant. White has more costume changes than Lewis and he’s quite the peacock. For a musical supposedly about nuns, it’s ironic that the best musical numbers belong to the men. As the high school geek that Cartier remembers as “Sweaty Eddie,” Jennings’ “I could Be that Guy” has a wistfulness of a hero that hasn’t overcome his nerdy image and its very subtleness seems incongruous with the two-dimensional feel of the show and hints at how much better this show could be.
Shank’s three henchman (Melvin Abston, Danny Stiles and Dan Domenech) shine in their number “Lady in the Long Black Dress” although how many gangs have a white guy, a black guy and a Latino? Is that a nod to Tarantino (a black boss with a black and an Italian henchman) or multi-culturalism or an attempt to hit all the demographics? Was Philadelphia in some kind of a time warp that you could have 1970s-type music with a little rap?
OK. Reality isn’t what one expect from slapstick comedy and particularly a musical. Yet what exactly is the message of this musical? Even nuns need to shake their booty? Catholics need some gospel lessons from the Baptists? A black sister can show white sisters how to get some soul? If you need some mindless entertainment with some obvious laughs, this will do. This show opens up in Atlanta this month and hopes to head to Broadway.
Ironically, the Kander and Ebb show, Curtains, which features a four-time Emmy-winning TV star (David Hyde Pierce), who possesses only a servicable voice, is a more satisfying musical. Much in the manner of the musical The Drowsy Chaperone that opened at the Ahmanson in downtown Los Angeles before moving on to Broadway, this show lovingly mimicks old musicals. Yet while The Drowsy Chaperone had a narrator who was listening to a cast recording of a musical and giving out commentary about his personal life and the personal lives of the cast, Curtains is a play-within-a-play conceit.
A Boston homicide police officer, Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (David Hyde Pierce) goes a theater after the leading lady of the Robbin’Hood of the Old West is killed on opening night. As he unravels the murder mystery, he falls in love with the small-town girl making Niki Harris (Jill Paice), and helps doctor up the script and the music. Set in 1959, this show has old-fashioned values and looks back fondly at musicals of a more innocent time.
Curtains doesn’t have the shock effect of Kander and Ebb’s more famous piece, Cabaret, or its socio-political punch. The dancing (choreographed by Rob Ashford) won’t make you think of Cabaret or Chicago either.
Instead, Kander and Ebb’s last show (Ebb died in 2004) is a delightful trifle – light and fluffy without a single serious thought or commentary about the world. Instead of bump and grind, we have sweet little numbers. There is a flash of wit in the number where cast members remember the first murder victim “The Woman’s Dead.” There are the rousing, audience-pleasing numbers “Show People” and “Thataway!.” Tony Award winner, Debra Monk as the show’s producer belts out “It’s a Business” which talks about the reality of musical theater. There’s also a cute evolution of one musical piece, solved by the musical-loving Cioffi, “In the Same Boat.” Predictably, we have an egotistical director (Edward Hibbert) and the bimbo chorine (Megan Sikora).
The show veers dangerously into reality when there’s a second and then a third murder and does its own hatchet job – criticizing theater critics as if Kander and Ebb couldn’t resist one last jab back. Pierce is charming as the detective and amateur musical doctor and this alone is enough to carry this lightweight show. Anna Louizos’ sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes are strong, detailed and playful but not over the top.
With the death of Ebb, Kander’s writing partner for 40 years and the death of the original book writer Peter Stone in 2003, this musical about troubled a troubled musical had its own problems getting on stage. Rupert Holmes is credited with the book and additional lyrics were supplied by Kander and Holmes. Despite its flaws, under the deft direction of Scott Ells, “Curtains” is a winsome little show that will leave you with a smile and feeling that all is well in the world, even if you don’t have purple shoes.
Curtains closed at the Ahmanson on September 10, 2006 and will open at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on February 27. Hyde was previously seen on Broadway in Spamalot.
Sister Act: The Musical closed at the Pasadena Playhouse in December and opens on January 17, 2007 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, GA.