Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Guest Blogger: Tim Hulsey Reviews 'And the Curtain Rises'

Tim Hulsey, who recently completed a quest to see all of Shakespeare's plays performed on stage over a five-year period, accompanied me to the press performance of Signature Theatre's new production, And the Curtain Rises, the third in a series of original musicals commissioned by the American Musical Voices Project.

Here is Tim's review of And the Curtain Rises for The Metro Herald:

Signature Premieres ‘And the Curtain Rises’:
An Honorable Failure with Breathtaking Music
Tim Hulsey
Special to The Metro Herald

The world-premiere musical And the Curtain Rises, playing through April 10 at Signature Theatre in Arlington, is far from a great – or even a good – show. At the moment, it's an immensely promising rough draft, with some amusing knockabout comedy, a sweetly predictable central romance, and an uncommonly good musical score.

Unfortunately, the show also has a leaden, unfocused first act that sinks the story before it can properly begin. Many shows have “second-act trouble,” but And the Curtain Rises may be the only show I've ever seen with “first-act trouble.”

Playwright Michael Slade, composer Joseph Thalken, and lyricist Mark Campbell have combined forces – with varying degrees of success – to tell the story of The Black Crook, the 1866 song-and-dance spectacular that many scholars believe was the forerunner of American musical comedy.

Slade has clearly done his homework researching the period, cramming the book with references to 19th-century cultural arcana. Yet he seems uncertain about the story he wishes to tell. Campbell's lyrics are frequently marred by banality and triteness, as he invokes tried-and-true sentiments that showbiz folks are “family.”

Thalken, however, emerges from this show as a major new presence in American musical theater, providing an innovative, emotionally resonant musical score that invokes the best Broadway traditions while forging ahead with fresh-sounding melodies and compelling harmonies. (It doesn't hurt that Signature Theatre has graced this score with a lush fourteen-piece orchestra, which director Kristin Hanggi shows off at every possible opportunity.)

Thalken's score, glorious as it is, is yoked to the most clichéd of inside-showbiz plots: First-time producer William Wheatley (Nick Dalton) attempting to stage a hopelessly hackneyed drama written by pretentious Civil War army buddy Charles Barras (Sean Thompson). With the help of his over-the-hill leading lady Millicent Cavendish (Rebecca Watson), a ragtag group of actors, and a stranded crew of French ballerinas, Wheatley has less than two weeks to turn a surefire flop into the toast of New York. Anyone who doubts the outcome for even a split second has probably never heard of Mickey, Judy, or the old phrase “let's put on a show.”

This story has been told once before as a musical, in the 1954 Sigmund Romberg flop The Girl in Pink Tights. (The title comes from a theater legend in which French ballet dancers turned The Black Crook into a full-blown succès de scandale by dancing in pink tights that resembled bare skin under the limelight.) Perhaps in an effort to avoid cliché, the creators of And the Curtain Rises have chosen to present the genesis of The Black Crook as an ensemble piece, with several possible storylines vying for attention and no clear protagonist.

The entire first act feels diffuse and unsettled, rather like a Robert Altman film, though without Altman's subtle technique for bringing different scenes and stories into a narrative framework. A gay subplot between an underemployed composer (Brian Sutherland) and an elderly aspiring classical actor (Erick Devine) feels both extraneous and wrong for the period, as do the various entanglements of a scheming, manipulative, sexually promiscuous ballerina (Anna Kate Bocknek).

Although the second act is clearly focused and much tighter than the first, unresolved strands from the first act frequently intrude and distract from the main story. And, as one might expect, budgetary constraints prevent Signature Theatre from displaying Wheatley's most extravagant scenic effects, such as live flames and a waterfall. Even the infamous pink tights get short shrift, as a sort of coda that winks at the earlier musical that told the same story.

As William Wheatley, Nick Dalton is disappointingly bland. His second-act solos “Think ...” and “Stay“ allow him to show off his pleasant baritone, but for the most part, Dalton reacts to more colorful supporting characters instead of steering the action. Rebecca Watson makes a firmer impression as Wheatley's leading lady, and Thalken gives her a doozy of an eleven-o'-clock number with “Enter Love.”

No backstage drama would be complete without a mustache-twirling ham to play the villain, and although And the Curtain Rises breaks with tradition somewhat by assigning the role to a playwright, Sean Thompson fills it marvelously. His comic solo “The Words” is one of the few bright spots in a dismal first act. But supporting actress Alma Cuervo, as the headmistress of a French ballet troupe, seems to find the show's true heart, with her winningly low-key rendition of the show's inspirational anthem, “A Little Pretend.”

At a time when American theaters are overrun with jukebox shows and kitschy spectaculars, any attempt to revive or rejuvenate the Broadway musical is welcome, and a story about the origins of musical comedy might not be such a bad place to begin anew. Unfortunately, And the Curtain Rises is not the right story, nor indeed is it much of a story at all. Although the show must be judged a failure, it is at least an honorable one, with lofty ambitions and some breathtakingly beautiful music.

And the Curtain Rises (directed by Kristin Hanggi; book by Michael Slade; music by Joseph Thalken; lyrics by Mark Campbell) began previews on March 17, with an official opening on March 29. Performances continue through April 10. Show times are Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm.

Tickets range from $55 - $81 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT (7328) or visiting Group discounts are available for parties of ten or more by contacting Bethany Shannon at or by calling (571) 527-1831. For more information please visit

Top left - Erik Altemus (as George C. Boniface) appeals to Rebecca Watson (as Millicent Cavendish) in And the Curtain Rises. At Virginia's Signature Theatre through April 10, 2011.

Center right - Nick Dalton (as William Wheatley) shows his theatre company how to ward off evil demons in And the Curtain Rises. At Virginia's Signature Theatre through April 10, 2011.

Bottom left - Alma Cuervo (as Mme. Grimaud) speaks on behalf of her French Ballet Troupe in And the Curtain Rises. At Virginia's Signature Theatre through April 10, 2011.

All photos by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature Theatre:
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