'Curtains' a darkly clever spoof

Music Theatre of Wichita's production of "Curtains" runs August 4-8. Darcie Roberts is at front.
Music Theatre of Wichita's production of "Curtains" runs August 4-8. Darcie Roberts is at front. The Wichita Eagle

"Curtains" is a wickedly funny musical murder mystery from the same guys — John Kander and Fred Ebb — who gave us "Cabaret" and "Chicago," and it's a darkly clever Agatha Christie spoof as well as a valentine to musical theater itself.

It's about a backstage murder on opening night of a new show during a pre-Broadway Boston tryout in 1959. The unlikable and untalented leading lady (local favorite Karen L. Robu in a brief cameo) is bumped off and everybody else in the cast and crew is suspect because they all had both motive and means to do her in. Called in to solve the case is a star-struck homicide detective whose awe of showbiz threatens to get in the way of justice.

The 2006 Tony-winning show is a Wichita premiere for Music Theatre of Wichita as it caps its 39th season, and it is a colorful, lavish extravaganza with catchy music, laugh-out-loud lines and huge production numbers that seem to go on forever — in a good way.

Director Mark Madama has a large cast and a sometimes complex show-within-a-show to keep track of, and it mostly works, although opening night started off a little cold with some fluffed dialogue and tentative gestures. But the cast quickly warmed up, got up to speed and delivered the goods.

One of the unseen stars is choreographer Peggy Hickey, who created big, impressive dance moments as well as a spoofy homage to Agnes DeMille's famous dream ballet from "Oklahoma!" for the show-within-a-show set in "Kansasland."

MTW company members Kimberly Faure and Johnny Stellard had the skills to make it look spectacular as well as funny in its exaggeration.

Broadway actor Larry Raben, who was a slapstick delight last year in "The Producers," plays Lt. Frank Cioffi with a modest, endearing and somewhat goofy charm. He has a fine voice and a playful spring to his dance steps.

Darcie Roberts, a former Wichitan who was in the Broadway original of this show, plays Georgia Hendricks, half of a divorced song-writing team, who is called upon to step into the deceased leading lady's shoes so the show can go on. Roberts has a warm, comfortable voice and manner that makes her a pleasure to watch.

Claybourne Elder, a New Yorker making his MTW debut as Aaron Fox, the other half of the song-writing duo with Georgia, stops the show with his powerful and emotionally resonant ballad, "I Miss the Music," as he laments the couple's break-up and his secret wish to get back together.

And MTW ensemble member Emily Mechler, just seen in "Annie," has a strong, clear voice as ingenue Niki Harris, who captures the detective's heart.

But the shameless and utterly hilarious scene-stealers are Paula Leggett Chase as brassy, cynical producer Carmen Bernstein and Jody Cook as snotty, elitist director Christopher Belling. Both have the best zingers in the show, which they deliver with outrageous relish and abandon.

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