Over the Moon 

Mysteries and man parts dangle over local stages

An imaginative and irreverent playwright with a thing for time travel and the musical theater could pen an interesting musical mystery based on the fatal circumstances surrounding John Kander and Fred Ebb's musical Curtains, which is currently onstage at Theatre Memphis. Kander and Ebb, the innovative songwriting team behind an extensive list of musicals including Cabaret and Chicago, were collaborating on Curtains, a whodunit and backstage comedy/romance, with 1776 author Peter Stone. But before their work was completed, Stone died of pulmonary fibrosis. Then Ebb died of a heart attack. And because the show must go on, both men were replaced by Rupert Holmes, the songwriter/recording artist behind "Escape" (aka "The Pina Colada Song").

This isn't the first time great artists have died to give Holmes an opportunity to shine. Charles Dickens suffered a stroke, leaving his Mystery of Edwin Drood unfinished until Holmes stepped in in 1985 and transformed the story into the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical. Coincidence? Probably so. But Curtains still feels like a dish prepared by too many cooks, like something that was finished rather than completed.

In addition to being a mystery without much suspense, Curtains is a play about a play that's not quite ready to open. It's an unfortunate irony for this frothy throwback to the golden age of the American musical. In fits and starts, Curtains can be a great deal of fun.

Director Mitzi Hamilton has a tendency to look for good dancers, which means her shows don't always feature the best acting. But in this case she's assembled an able cast that knows how to put on the razzle-dazzle. Her Curtains is sleek and stylish, and that may be the show's biggest problem. Even a musical about a troupe of actors locked in a theater where people are being murdered right and left needs a little grit. This production is all about broad smiles, cute dialogue exchanges, and dancing on heavenly, cloud-covered rooftops.

Marques Brown stands out from the crowd for his upbeat take on Curtains' musical-loving crime-scene investigator, but it takes more than an able actor and an enthusiastic cast to keep this mostly enjoyable story on track. As a backstage comedy/romance it's incomplete, and as a murder mystery it's awful. In the end, Curtains is only successful at being a big old-fashioned musical extravaganza. And if that's all you're looking for, this show totally kills.

Through June 28th

Douglas Carter Beane's satirical drama The Little Dog Laughed is, as anyone who ever chanted a certain nursery rhyme might imagine, a story about laughter, sport, the moon, and dishes running away with spoons. Now at Circuit Playhouse, it tells the story of Mitchell (John Moore), a hot but somewhat air-headed film actor on the cusp of stardom. If only he can hide his slight case of homosexuality long enough to play a gay man on the big screen, he'll be on Easy Street. But Mitchell gets drunk sometimes, and to the amusement and consternation of his lesbian agent Diane (Irene Crist), he calls prostitutes. When he falls for Alex, a charming bisexual rent boy (an understated performance by DJ Hill), the sly comedy turns ever so slightly in the direction of farce. Diane's acid tongue has been dipped in silver, and it never stops wagging, even when she has little to say.

The Little Dog Laughed aims at easy targets and hits them easily enough. It's no stretch to portray Hollywood types as shallow, fast-talking whores who'll stab you, rob you, and call you "baby" while they're doing it. Likewise, it's no great revelation that there's still a surprising amount of homophobia even in the seemingly gay-friendly entertainment industry. And although it threatens, the play never becomes an outright indictment of Tinseltown's well-documented hypocrisies.

Although Moore and Hill both do exceptional work, their one big make-out session feels choreographed and dispassionate. Then, amid a good deal of slobbery neck-kissing, Hill's underwear is ripped off and the audience is given a face full of pale butt and swinging bollocks. Had a cow subsequently jumped over that ass, the show would have instantly moved out of the "good but not for everybody" category to a must-see instant classic. Oh well.

Through July 12th

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