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Theater Review (NYC): Curtains with David Hyde Pierce

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Given my disappointment that David Hyde Pierce had failed to materialise in London with the rest of the American cast of Spamalot, imagine my delight the day before I went to New York to learn that he was currently taking the lead in a musical on Broadway.

Just 25 hours, no sleep, two plane journeys, two train journeys, a quick meal, and a hop around the corner later I was in New York watching his Tony award-winning performance.

Curtains, a new musical penned by John Kander and Fred Ebb (Chicago), is a comedy telling the story of a detective investigating the suspicious death of a rather abysmal and unpopular stage actress named Jessica Cranshaw (Patty Goble) on opening night in Boston in 1959.

Since Cranshaw’s dreadful routine had threatened the show’s longevity, everyone involved in the production is a murder suspect, so musical fan Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Pierce) keeps everyone housed in the theatre while he tries to crack the case. He also becomes involved creatively in the show, a Western-themed “Robbin’ Hood!”, putting forward ideas to ensure its success when it eventually travels to Broadway.

Cioffi is smitten with actress Niki Harris (Erin Davie), a sweet young lady who is keen to help him solve the mystery. She keeps finding and bringing him threatening notes from the killer, which she accidentally keeps getting her fingerprints all over.

Many jokes centre on backstage stereotypes, and more than a handful touch on Pierce’s role as Dr Niles Crane in Frasier, although initially not all of these were picked up by the audience. However, this being America, the gay jokes, of which there were many, went down very well, as did Niki’s paranoid quip about murder being “like a hobby” in Britain. The particular Brit she was referring to was the director Christopher Belling, played by Edward Hibbert with his usual campy, hammy acting.

Debra Monk gave a wonderful showing as the bitter, sexually frustrated producer Carmen Bernstein, with a marvellous, brassy voice that suited the big, bold, Broadway tunes of Curtains. Carmen is determined not to give her daughter Elaine, aka Bambi (Megan Sikora), a major role in the musical for fear it will be seen as nepotism rather than evidence of Bambi’s talent.

Karen Ziemba as composer-turned-new leading lady Georgia Hendricks proved to be a far superior actress and singer than her unfortunate predecessor.

After eleven TV seasons of hearing Pierce talking in Niles's clipped, refined tones, initially it came as something of a shock to hear him adopt a Bostonian drawl (think Matt Damon in The Departed).  However I quickly became accustomed to the change.

As for his singing voice, it was not the typical, carbon-copy Broadway leading man intonation. It had a 1950s twang, and could be rich, light, deep, high, and occasionally raw, just the way I like it.

He also had the most diverse, natural facial expressions I’ve seen on stage, although that could have been because I watched him through the binoculars more than I have other stage actors. He was also capable of conveying much emotion through his beautiful eyes, and I didn’t need the binoculars to appreciate that.

As with Chicago, there was as much dancing as singing, only better. The tunes and lyrics were more memorable, most notably "Thataway", "Show People", and "In The Same Boat". The irony of "What Kind Of Man?", in which the producers of “Robbin’ Hood!” slated the negative critics, was not lost on me.

Despite the BBC having destroyed what little interest I had in any sort of dancing, I was able to admire and enjoy the choreography, both perfectly synchronised and perfectly un-synchronised.

In the dance scenes Cioffi’s character had a hint of Niles. Pierce sometimes seemed to be complementing the physical awkwardness of his most famous character. At other times he obliterated it completely, especially in a Fred and Ginger inspired dance with Niki.

Despite the permanently cold theatre and the inedible $3 American chocolate, given the wealth of acting talent, likeable characters, memorable songs, and mesmerising dance routines, it will certainly not be curtains for this musical.

Curtains is at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on West 45th Street, New York, until Sunday 29th June 2008.

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