And the Curtain Rises

Musical
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Editorial Review

Theater review: ‘And the Curtain Rises’ at Signature Theatre

By Peter Marks
Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Through its breeding program for new musicals, the American Musical Voices Project, Signature Theatre had over the past two seasons birthed some promising material: Michael John LaChiusa’s melodically lush, if overlong, “Giant”; and Ricky Ian Gordon’s affectingly personal “Sycamore Trees.”

Every litter, however, is bound to produce a runt, and in the Signature project’s case, that would be “And the Curtain Rises,” the original musical by Joseph Thalken, Michael Slade and Mark Campbell that’s now playing on the company’s main stage.

The story of what’s purported to be the accidental creation in 1866 of the first American musical — an entertainment called “The Black Crook” — “And the Curtain Rises” might have found some traction as an insightful peek at the imaginative process or even, as a last resort, at the timeless juiciness of backstage histrionics.

Instead, the work, staged by Kristin Hanggi, who directed Broadway’s tribute to the radio hits of the ’80s, “Rock of Ages,” comes across as a frustratingly pedestrian affair, with a fairly lifeless score and a book that strings out a rather stale narrative.

That tale revolves for a long time around the struggle between a cluelessly tin-eared playwright (Sean Thompson) and an earnestly educable company manager (Nick Dalton) over the melodrama they’re rehearsing at Niblo’s Garden Theatre in New York. Everyone involved except them seems abundantly aware that the playwright’s “Return to Black Creek” is a total snooze. The opening song, “Someone Must Be Told,” depicts the actors in mid-rehearsal, delivering their own stinging reviews.

“This stinks!” they sing. “Every syllable, consonant: Foul!”

Composer Thalken sets Campbell’s lyric to a jittery rhythm and a Sondheim-esque melodic dissonance. Like much of the score, however, the number lacks finesse. It feels as if it’s marking a space for a better song yet to be written.

Dalton’s nice-guy William Wheatley can’t hear what the actors (or the play) are telling him; he’s an awfully slow learner. So an entire act is consumed with the obvious, that “Return to Black Creek” has got to go, before the inevitable light-bulb moment in which music and dance are added and “Creek” can turn into “Crook.”

In the interim, the theater becomes a refuge, as a result of a fire in a neighboring playhouse, for a corps of French ballerinas, led by the cagey Madame Grimaud (Alma Cuervo). And Wheatley develops feelings for “Black Creek’s” leading lady, Millicent Cavendish (Rebecca Watson), who senses the potential extinguishing of her stardom in the disaster she’s unadvisedly signed on for.

Slade, who wrote the musical’s book, tosses in some other stock characters, such as the company’s warm and cozy comedy couple (Kevin Carolan and Jennifer Smith), as well as a coquettish prima ballerina (Anna Kate Bocknek) who constantly bats her eyes in Wheatley’s direction. In an embellishment that has become all but de rigueur these days, a furtive gay romance is appended, between a burly veteran actor (Erick Devine) and a brooding Hungarian composer (Brian Sutherland).

Cuervo infuses Grimaud with vivacity and theatrical savoir-faire, and Smith is a winning presence as a long-suffering supporting player. A big problem for “And the Curtain Rises,” though, is that the characters always conform to the playbook of established musical-theater behavior, whether it’s Wheatley serenading himself with a pep talk (“Trust Yourself”) or Millicent offering in “Enter Love” her own version of “Before the Parade Passes By.”

Set designer Beowulf Boritt enlivens the evening with a fine rendering of the Garden Theatre’s backstage and some of its period mechanization, and Kathleen Geldard’s bright array of costumes — tutus and voluminous gowns — handsomely conjures the fashion sense of post-Civil War America.

Josh Walden contributes aptly decorous choreography for the ballet dancers. The 14-member orchestra conducted by Boko Suzuki fulfills its assignment admirably, too, even if “And the Curtain Rises” itself never comes anywhere close to a pulse-quickening crescendo.

Music by Joseph Thalken; lyrics by Mark Campbell; book by Michael Slade. Directed by Kristin Hanggi. Sets, Beowulf Boritt; costumes, Kathleen Geldard; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Matt Rowe. With Erik Altemus, William Diggle, Greer Gisy, Suzanne Darling, Kristen Calgaro, Rachel Schur, Laura Keller. About 2½ hours.

'And the Curtain Rises' at Signature Theatre

By Jonathan Padget
Thursday, March 10, 2011

Musicals love history, particularly when that history offers an evocative sound that can be recycled. Think "Ragtime," which had the syncopation-loving era of Scott Joplin on which to hang its stylistic hat. Or "Chicago," which reveled in Jazz Age idioms to spin its tale of merry murderesses.

But what about the new show "And the Curtain Rises" - opening Thursday at Signature Theatre - which turns back the clock to 1866 for the birth of the modern musical? What popular sound does that historical period offer a 21st-century composer?

The Camptown ladies sing this song, doo-dah, doo-dah. The Camptown racetrack's five miles long, oh, de doo-dah day . . .

Joseph Thalken is standing at a piano in a rehearsal room at Signature to explain the simple harmonies and rhythms of America's post-Civil War musical landscape, exemplified by Stephen Foster's hit "Camptown Races." It's a quiet day at the theater, with the cast on a week-long break while director Kristin Hanggi is out of the country, and Thalken, 48, is taking advantage of the lull to focus on orchestrations for the score he has created to celebrate a pivotal moment in theatrical history.

"And the Curtain Rises," with a book by Michael Slade and lyrics by Mark Campbell, looks at the point on Broadway when fate intervened to make a novice producer's play-in-a-shambles a success when he combined forces with dancers and musicians from a ballet troupe whose nearby theater had gone up in flames.

The 1866 show, "The Black Crook," ran for nearly 500 performances and was popular on tour and in revivals for years. But it was not, alas, the music of the time that drove Thalken's passion for the material. "We did a lot of research on the music," Thalken says, "and I find the music from the original show incredibly mundane. So, there are only a few little things in the show-within-the-show that sort of ape that style."

The finely tuned music-history ear will hear Thalken's references to such forms as the march, the waltz, schottische (a slow polka) and bel canto opera, "but it's not done in way that's meant to make fun of it as much as it is to have fun with it," the composer says. "There's definitely a nod toward the style, but otherwise I'm trying to write with a more contemporary voice."

"There are only a few points in the show where I'm consciously trying to sound like 1866," Thalken adds. "It's more about avoiding particular styles that would sound anachronistic. There's no rhythm and blues in this show, or jazz, or anything of that sort, because that attaches to it a certain time period that would be inappropriate for what we've written here."

The plot, too, Thalken says, isn't beholden to the events of 1866. "If you're a historian, you have to take it with a grain of salt and just know that it's an imagining of what could have happened," he says. "Because nobody knows for sure. . . . There are all these different accounts that contradict each other. We do lay out the basic elements. . . . There was a melodrama rehearsing. There was a ballet company in a theater down the street. That theater burned down, and somehow, somebody had the idea of incorporating this ballet troupe into this melodrama. . . . Those are the basic plot points that are true. After that, we took some some historical detail and used it, and we made up some other things."

The creators did keep some characters from the original, including the black-magic sorcerer of the title.

Thalken - best known for his collaboration with lyricist and book writer Tom Jones (of "The Fantasticks" fame) on a stage version of the film "Harold and Maude" several years ago - took on "And the Curtain Rises" as a $100,000, four-year commission through Signature's American Musical Voices Project, and it's the third full-scale production since the project was launched, following Michael John LaChiusa's "Giant" and Ricky Ian Gordon's "Sycamore Trees."

"This is a totally different vibe from the other two," Thalken says. "It's a nice contrast. The intention is fun. Hopefully people will be into the story and find it funny and find it moving. That's what we're going for."

Naturally, Thalken gives "The Black Crook" props for shaping a genre that has been crucial to his career. "The idea that people would sing and dance and act - that you would have these people who are what we now call a 'triple threat' in a show - was unheard of," he says. But he's also a realist about what can really make audiences line up at the box office.

"One reason it was so successful is that it featured these scantily clad girls wearing pink tights. Under the lighting conditions of the time, it looked like they had nude legs. And that was scandalous."