Ask musical theatre fans to name a Kander and Ebb show and they’ll probably offer you Cabaret or Chicago.
But there’s a third ‘C’ in the creative duo’s theatrical cannon – the lesser-known murder mystery musical Curtains, a send-up of theatrical whodunnits with a plum sleuthing role (which won David Hyde Pierce a Tony Award when it premiered on Broadway) and a supporting cast of wickedly knowing thespian caricatures.
In fact, the storyline by Rupert Holmes, working on an original concept by the late Peter Stone, is packed with sly in-jokes made at the expense of both showbiz types and yes, even theatre critics. Especially critics. Ouch.
The curtain lifts on a show within a show, a risible Wild West musical version of Robin Hood which opens to desultory reviews and the death, at the curtain call, of its awful leading lady – a demise no one backstage even bothers to pretend to mourn.
Cue the arrival on the scene of Lt Frank Cioffi (Jason Manford), a drama-loving Boston detective who reveals the dreadful diva was murdered and proceeds to put the whole theatre on lockdown, ostensibly to flush out the culprit but also in the process reviving Robben Hood’s flagging fortunes with his puppyish enthusiasm and musical suggestions
In the Same Boat...the cast of Curtains. Top: Jason Manford as Frank Cioffi. Photos Richard Davenport
Everyone it seems is a suspect, particularly when the bodies start to mount up.
Kander and Ebb created a collection of numbers that encompass sharp lyrics, knowing musicals pastiches – including the Les Mis-lite The Woman’s Dead - and poignant autobiographical moments.
Ebb passed away mid-writing, and Curtains composing duo Aaron (Ore Oduba) and Georgia's (Carley Stenson) I Miss the Man is surely Kander’s own tender tribute to his late writing partner.
Manford is delightful as the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed fanboy detective who becomes embroiled in the backstage drama.
Those who might not have seen him in his acting guise (a mounting musicals CV includes Sweeney Todd, The Producers and Chitty) might be surprised by his natural stage presence and strong singing voice. He delivers his numbers in smooth and melodic fashion, with lovely sustained notes and good enunciation.
He’s surrounded here by a host of very enjoyable supporting performances, not least from Rebecca Lock as the hard-boiled producer and Samuel Holmes’ bitingly bitchy British director – two of the show’s choicest theatrical stereotypes.
But the entire cast are evidently having a lot of fun.
Jason Manford as Cioffi and Leah Barbara West as Niki
As a piece of theatre, Curtains is on the long side – the rather indulgent running time not helped on opening night by a hitch with the sound desk which meant it started 15 minutes late.
After a delightful brisk, fly along first half the pace feels more sluggish after the interval, while concurrent competing plotlines – not just the murder but also the many show-must-go-on rehearsals, along with various accompanying romantic entanglements – mean the whodunnit element has to fight to deliver its final dramatic killer blow.
But with energetic choreography, bags of witty dialogue and classic musical charm, Curtains remains a show that deserves to draw a big audience.