KANDER & Ebb wrote Cabaret, Chicago and Frank Sinatra’s signature song, New York, New York.
In truth, Curtains is not on a par with those peaks, being a musical, satirical comedy and whodunit rolled into a play within a play that excels at none of them.
A recipe with so many rich ingredients might have even Paul Hollywood worried, and what happens here is that nothing quite satisfies, although that is no fault of the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s exuberant cast, director Alex Schofield, musical director Scott Phillips and orchestra alike.
The comedy sometimes has to strive too hard in its clunky send-ups of theatre group tropes and murder mysteries alike. Under Scott Phillips’s ceaselessly exuberant musical direction, his wind and brass players are full of oomph, as the songs are given maximum welly, particularly by Jennie Wogan-Wells’s Georgia Hendricks, Jennifer Jones’s Niki Harris and Rosy Rowley’s redoubtable Carmen Bernstein, but they fall well short of K&E’s Seventies’ best.
The whodunit interweaves with the hapless play within a play, a boisterous but seemingly plotless Western by the name of Robbin’ Hood, but it never has the grip, rising tension or intrigue of a Christie murder mystery. The more the plot thickens, somehow the more it doesn’t, because the musical must go on, in theatre tradition…but just too much is going on.
This 2007 American musical, with a book by Escape (The Pina Colada Song) hitmaker Rupert Holmes, is set in 1959, backstage and on stage at the Colonial Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts, where the exasperating, line-forgetting leading lady of a new musical mysteriously suddenly dies (much like her performance, not so mysteriously).
Everyone, cast and crew alike, is a suspect for forensic interrogation by Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (Steve Jobson), the unconventional local detective with a passion for musical theatre. So much so, he keeps making suggestions to improve the musical (within the musical, not the K&E musical itself, which might have been a better idea).
You will enjoy the running in-joke of the song In The Same Boat forever being re-written in search of a better tune before Cioffi has the brilliant idea of running all five versions together in the best ensemble number of the show.
Unlike Holmes’s humour, Jobson has a lightness of touch to his performance, at ease with song and script alike, his Cioffi being plucky and persistent, and suddenly romantically involved too.
In a show where individual performances surpass the material, Wogan-Wells has fun as the indefatigable Georgia, taking over from the murdered lead, while Ben Huntley revels in being the Englishman abroad and aghast, Christopher Belling, the director with the waspish tongue and ocean-wide ego.
Curtains is too long, too convoluted, never as funny as a Mischief send-up, but JRTC’s production values are good, from costumes to lighting and Ollie Nash’s sound design. Choreographer Sarah Colestead, principals, featured dancers and ensemble, are kept busy by the flow of song after song and in turn keep the stage busy with commotion in motion.
As usual, JRTC will be raising funds for the JoRo, adding to the £23,000 donated from past productions. That all helps to keep the curtain up, even if Curtains doesn’t raise the roof, despite the committed performances.
Curtains for Curtains, a whydoit dud, but roll on JRTC’s upcoming shows, Helen Spencer’s second instalament of Musicals In The Multiverse and Beauty And The Beast.
Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
IT’S curtain up for Curtains, the Kander & Ebb musical comedy whodunnit to be staged by the Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company in York from February 7 to 10.
After playing grouchy feed-store proprietor Horace Vandergelder in Hello, Dolly! last year and assistant-directing The Producers in 2018, Kiss Me Kate in 2019, Made In Dagenham in 2020 and Kipps (The Half A Sixpence Musical) in 2022, Alex Schofield steps up to direct a JRTC show for the first time.
“By the time I did Hello, Dolly!,I’d already pitched to direct Curtains, after we secured the rights in spring 2022,” says Alex, who works in human resources at York Minster. “Initially, we’d looked at doing it last September but that couldn’t happen, and it’s one of those situations where it still won’t feel real until the opening night as I’ve been planning it for so long.
“I became aware of the show just before the pandemic when Jason Manford was leading the touring company in 2019 and then transferred into the West End. It came more into my provenance when it was one of those productions that could be streamed during lockdown with donations to arts funding, and that’s when I first saw it.”
This 2007 American musical, with glorious songs by Kander & Ebb and a witty and charming book by Rupert Holmes, is set in 1959 at Boston’s Colonial Theatre, where the entire cast and crew are suspects in a plucky local detective’s investigation into why the leading lady of a new musical mysteriously dropped dead on stage.
“It’s a really funny show, sending up murder mysteries and theatre groups, so that’s all three of my boxes ticked: I love comedy, I love musical theatre and I love whodunits!” says Alex, who first directed a show, The Pirates Of Penzance, for the now-defunct Jorvik Gilbert & Sullivan Company seven years ago.
“I think people should be attracted to Curtains by Kander & Ebb’s involvement. It’ll have the appeal of a classic musical; it’s very fast paced and very funny, but it has loads of tension as well, with all these characters who have different motives for murder.”
Scripted by Rupert Holmes, who was brought in after Peter Stone, the writer of the original concept and book, died in 2003, Curtains features a play within a play. A Western, cowboy accents and all, by the name of Robbin’ Hood.
“You think, ‘how extreme can I make it from real life?’, with the auditions needing to see if people could do both a generic American accent and Southwestern [American frontier] accent so that the audience can distinguish between characters in the play and characters in the play within the play,” says Alex.
Comedy is a key element in Curtains. “It doesn’t take itself seriously and in some ways it speaks more to the English sense of humour, in how it sends itself up, but what separates it from English humour is that what they say is much more direct, whereas in England, it’s all about what’s not being said!” says Alex.
“Mind you, the director of the play within the play [Christopher Belling] is English and he’s very flamboyant, never holding back with his criticisms. I don’t think that if I took his approach there would be many people left in the company! I take a more compromising position.
“The director will be played by Ben Huntley, who’s been in our shows since Kiss Me Kate in smaller roles, so to give him this opportunity and see him shine in this principal role has been fantastic.”
Set up to raise funds for the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, JRTC has raised £23,000 from its productions so far, and once more proceeds will go the Haxby Road community theatre. “One of the advantages of this show, especially when we’re fundraising for the Rowntree Theatre, is that it’s a show about theatre, so we’ve made the theatre itself the set, with pretty minimal staging required for the play within the play,” says Alex.
Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company in Curtains, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, February 7 to 10, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.
YORK company Pick Me Up Theatre will stage the northern premiere of Mel Brooks’s musical Young Frankenstein in the New Year after the late postponement of last autumn’s run at the Grand Opera House.
Andrew Isherwood has picked up the directorial reins for this stage conversion of Brooks’s comedy horror movie, produced in York by artistic director and designer Robert Readman.
Rehearsals re-started in early December for the January 31 to February 3 run at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, with the original principal cast still in place and Helen Spencer assisting with production management.
“This show is by the creators of the record-breaking Broadway sensation The Producers,” says Robert. “The comedy genius Mel Brooks has adapted his legendary comedy film from 1974 into a brilliant stage show of Young Frankenstein. I saw the West End production and loved it.
“Every bit as relevant to audience members who will remember the original as it will be to newcomers, the musical has all the of panache of the screen sensation with a little extra theatrical flair added. Young Frankenstein is scientifically proven, monstrously good entertainment.”
In Brooks’s spoof, the grandson of infamous scientist Victor Frankenstein, Dr Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”, he insists), has inherited his family’s castle estate in Transylvania.
Aided and hindered by hunchbacked sidekick Igor (pronounced “Eye-gore”), leggy lab assistant Inga (pronounced normally), devilishly sexy Frau Blucher (“Neigh”!) and needy fiancée Elizabeth (“Surprise”!), Frederick finds himself filling the mad scientist shoes of his ancestor.
After initial reluctance, his mission will be to strive to fulfil his grandfather’s legacy by bringing a corpse back to life. “It’s alive!”, he exclaims as his experiment yields a creature to rival his grandfather’s monster. Eventually, and inevitably, this new monster escapes.
Working in tandem with Thomas Meehan, Brooks gleefully reanimates his horror-movie send-up of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus, with even more jokes, set-pieces and barnstorming parody songs that stick a pitchfork into good taste. Among those songs will be Puttin’ On The Ritz, Please Don’t Touch Me, He Vas My Boyfriend, The Transylvania Mania and There Is Nothing Like A Brain!, among many more Transylvanian smash hits.
Leading Pick Me Up’s cast will be former world squash champion James Willstrop, continuing his transfer from court to stage player as Dr Frankenstein after his Captain Von Trapp in Pick Me Up’s The Sound Of Music at Theatre@41, Monkgate, last Christmas.
Starring opposite him again will be Swedish-born Sanna Jeppsson (Maria in The Sound Of Music), here cast as Inga, while Jack Hooper, Mr Poppy in York Stage’s Nativity! The Musical in November 2022, will be Dr Frankenstein’s puppy dog of an assistant, Igor, “the classic Hammer Horror sidekick with a hump that keeps moving around”.
Helen Spencer (Mother Abbess in The Sound Of Music and Dolly Levi in Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s Hello, Dolly!) will play Frau Blucher, “the very stern housekeeper with surprising hidden depths”; Jennie Wogan-Wells, the Narrator in York Musical Theatre Company’s Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat last May, will be ingenue Elizabeth Benning, Frankenstein’s fiancée from America. “Think Legally Blonde,” says Helen. “Very conscious of her image; very high maintenance, throwing a spanner in the works when she turns up.”
Craig Kirby (Tom Oakley in Pick Me Up’s Goodnight Mr Tom) will be in Monster mode and further roles will go to Tom Riddolls as Sgt Kemp, Sam Steel as Bertram Bartam and Andrew Isherwood, fresh from directing Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for Pick Me Up last September, can be spotted as The Hermit as well as directing.
A supporting ensemble will play Transylvanians, students and more besides. Choreography is by Ilana Weets and the orchestra will be led by musical maestro Sam Johnson.
Readman had to call off Pick Me Up’s Halloween double bill of Emma Reeves and Lucy Potter’s The Worst Witch and Young Frankenstein at the Grand Opera House due to unforeseen circumstances. It has not been possible to re-mount Rosy Rowley’s production of The Worst Witch, featuring a young cast, but Young Frankenstein will take over the JoRo slot allocated originally to Pick Me Up’s now jettisoned production of Chicago, whose principal casting was in place, but whose rehearsals were yet to start.
Helen Spencer is relishing the resumption of rehearsals for Young Frankenstein. “Ilana had already put us through a huge amount of tap-dancing work: a very delayed return to tap in my case, having not done it since school, and she’s been very patient,” she says. “We’re having such fun again.
“Young Frankenstein is very silly with some brilliant numbers and really vibrant comedy, and we’re very lucky to have such amazing actors. Robert says it’s the best principal cast he could have wished for, such a safe pair of hands and so skilled that it would have been such a shame not to have done it. Thankfully we’re going ahead in January.”
Pick Me Up Theatre in Young Frankenstein, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, January 31 to February 32024, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk
NEWSFLASHES…Curtains…The Hollywood Sisters…Joseph Rowntree Theatre Musical Theatre Awards…Musicals In The Multiverse…
JOSEPH Rowntree Theatre Company’s next show will be Curtains, the 2007 Broadway musical mystery comedy with a book by Rupert Holmes, lyrics by Fred Ebb, music by John Kander and additional lyrics by Kander and Holmes.
What’s the plot? Boston’s Colonial Theatre is host to the opening night performance of a new musical in 1959. When the leading lady – a fading Hollywood star and diva, who has no right to be one – dies mysteriously on stage, the entire cast and crew are suspects.
Enter a local detective – and musical theatre fan to boot – who tries to save the show, solve the case, and maybe even find love before the show reopens, all without being killed.
Delightful characters, a witty and charming script and glorious tunes await you from February 7 to 10 at 7.30pm nightly plus a 2.30pm Saturday matinee. In the cast will be Steven Jobson, Jennifer Jones, Jennie Wogan-Wells, Rosy Rowley, Jonathan Wells, Paul Blenkiron, Ben Huntley, Jennifer Payne, Anthony Gardner, Chris Gibson and Jamie Benson, among others.
Proceeds from ticket sales on 01904 501935 or at josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk will go to the JoRo.
AFTER raising £1,000 for York Mind at their sold-out December 1 concert at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York close-harmony quartet The Hollywood Sisters – Helen Spencer, Cat Foster, Rachel Higgs and Henrietta Linnemann – willreturn there for another charity Christmas show with special guests next December. Watch this space for further details.
THE inaugural Joseph Rowntree Theatre Musical Theatre Awards will be launched formally in January. Watch this space.
Set up by the JoRo, the awards will run annually. “We’ve put out requests to all the companies that do full-book musicals in York, not specifically at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre,” says York actress, singer and director Helen Spencer, who is helping to run the awards with co-founder Nick Sephton. “At least seven companies have said they want to be involved.
“The way it works, each company nominates a judge; the judges will get together at the end of the year to decide who the winners are, with such categories as Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Choreographer, and then the awards ceremony will be held at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, Oscars style, in January.”
Explaining the concept behind the awards, Helen says: “The idea is to celebrate the amazing musical theatre scene we have in York and the amazing community we have that puts on these shows. This is a chance to celebrate all that creativity in our city.”
TO quote CharlesHutchPress, from the June 30 review, “Musicals In The Multiverse turns out to be out of this world. A sequel will surely follow.”
Happy to report that this Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company revue will return to the JoRo in June 2024, dates yet to be confirmed.
Directed by Helen Spencer, the show’s modus operandi is “playful, radical too, and has the potential to be rolled out again,” as CharlesHutchPress wrote of June’s inaugural two-night run.
“Imagine alternative worlds – a multiverse – where musical favourites take on a new life with a change of gender, era, key or musical style, arranged with glee, joy and flourish after flourish by musical director Matthew Peter Clare for his smart band”. More details of the sequel will follow.