Signature Theatre and The Shen Family Foundation have made a commitment to develop new works representing the American Musical Theatre through its groundbreaking American Musical Voice Project (AMVP), and for this they should be applauded. The ambitious scope of this partnership, the largest commission program for new works in the country, has enabled them to deliver the flawed but capacious and memorable Giant by John La Chiusa and Ricky Ian Gordon’s Sycamore Tree. This, their third work in the series, has, like the others, helped its artistic creators realize a fully orchestrated and staged production. Mounting new works is always a noble experiment, and like all authentic experiments, not all will succeed. Signature tried in many ways to get it right, but, sadly, And the Curtain Rises failed in several ways this first test.
The idea was a promising one. I can see why it “sold” the producers and the NEA as the creators laid out their plan to tell the story of the birth of the first American musical in a play-within-a-play structure. Two young men, who have just returned from fighting in the Civil War, put together a theatre ensemble to mount the librarian-turned soldier-turned writer’s play. His partner has the bucks through an inheritance, so William Wheatley becomes both producer and director, in part out of gratitude to his friend for saving his life on the field of battle. The show is in part about the perils of artistic process and the strain it puts on partners as well as interpreters, the actors. Into their midst land a troupe of Parisian ballet dancers, whose tour of the United States has been abruptly ended by a fire which burned down their theatre and left them stranded. How adversity becomes serendipity and serendipity becomes invention is what the play would show us about the universal art of theatre.
The set was quite inventive by designer Beowulf Borritt, whose name alone should have earned him a character spot in the play. Borritt created the feeling of a cramped backstage where these refugees gathered, literally sticking arms and legs into each other’s faces. The scene where the ballet dances first appeared was dazzling and beautifully lit by Colin K. Bills. Gorgeous pictures of Degas’ backstage paintings came to life, as morning classes and rehearsals of the dancers competed with scenes being blocked for the newly conceived and highly improbably play. The set also made good use of a period red curtain which opened up to reveal the orchestra pit behind the stage and beyond that the illusion of a 19th century theatre house, all velvet seating and balconies decorated with gilt medallions.
The orchestra had, by the standards of our economic times, a committed and robust sound. It was well led by conductor Boko Suzuki, whose ensemble of fourteen payers was tight, and he kept the music moving briskly when that was needed and quite soulfully at other times. In certain ways, this was the best ensemble sound I’ve heard at Signature. Hats off to composer Joseph Thalken who did his own orchestrations that made excellent use of the instrumentation.
The problem was in the work itself and I wondered if the creators were working towards different goals. Of the three, Mark Campbell, lyricist, probably succeeded most artfully. His work has been seen locally in several venues, notably at Wolf Trap with composer John Musto, in the commissioned opera Volpone. Campbell is very adept at word play, as in one of the evening’s most effective songs, “The Words,” sung well by Sean Thompson as the playwright who always chooses five words when one would do. Campbell’s work both served the 19th century character and had the contemporary dazzle we have come to expect in a musical’s “journey of a song”.
Composer Joseph Thalken has an impressive string of New York credits and clearly lives in the musical land of giant Stephen Sondheim who has transformed and dominated the American musical style for the last several decades. Much of Thalken’s music all but plagiarized in execution the Sondheim style. It was at times overly challenging to the audience’s ear and even to the musical abilities of performers like Rebecca Watson, who valiantly sang the role of the leading actress through some of the evening’s most difficult pieces. My issue was that the music neither fit the book, which attempted to make camp the play-within-the-play’s melodramatic style, nor felt like it served the characters. There were a few exceptions, notably an old fashioned ballad, “Stay” delivered in the second act by Nick Dalton, which showed the breakthrough of a man who has overlooked his heart in the pursuit of an obsession. His singing was both beautiful and convincing, thanks in part to the poignant orchestration of muted strings and English horn.
A problem I continue to have when I attend Signature performances is the balance between orchestra and the heavy mic-ing in the auditorium. This show, like many others, was overmiced. The direction of sound becomes confusing especially when the company is noted for producing Sondheim-esque fast change lines. As a consequence, when the singing stops and the mics are turned off or down, the energy drops considerably. I would hope Signature would find a way to correct this.
The real weakness to me was the book. The show had been described to me as a romp, but a romp it wasn’t. Opening night most of the lines intended to be comedic bombed. The central conflict that was driven by the strain of artistic partnership dissolved when we lost the character of Charles Barras for so many scenes that when he returned the audience had lost any investment in him. Worse, the potential threat of the production being scrapped was overturned in a few lines. Thus the evening’s climax fizzled in a speech which was made worse by the direction of having it delivered facing upstage.
The actors had the uneasy task of trying to live in two worlds and styles. The only actor who fully pulled it off was William Diggle, as the stage manager James Timoney, who really seemed to inhabit his role and the environment of the 19th century theatre. Alma Cuervo as the Ballet Mistress also gave a muted but dignified performance until she was required to run off-stage screaming to affect some other comedic business. Alas, Cuervo and Diggle were also the only actors who kept their accents. The French ballerina chorus ooh-la-lahed until they opened their mouths to sing. Then they had apparently transformed themselves into New Yorkers. Resetting the play-within-the play in Germany made the accents even more scattered and inconsistent.
Relationships also didn’t seem to get grounded in any reality so that on my part I stopped caring. Anna Kate Bocknek as Marie Bonfant, the prima ballerina and soubrette, was given the same tape loop of a scene that amounted to lots of simpering and batting of eyelashes which she was forced to deliver over and over. Rebecca Watson as the leading actress was given little to help us see anything more than the cliché of the boy toy relationship with George Boniface, although the actor Erik Devine tried to give it some substance. After George was dumped by the actress, he is next seen prancing across the stage performing in the hackneyed melodrama now transferred from the cornfields to Germany. Apparently the character had neither learned to love or to act. Strangest of all was the highly unlikely hook up of the Hungarian composer-accompanist refugee Roman Korda (Brian Sutherland) and the burly character actor Jeremiah Burnet, played by the bellowing baritone Erick Devine. Whether this was intended in the playwright’s mind or some nod by director Kristin Hanggi, it strained the credulity when this unlikely partnership suddenly slipped offstage hand in hand into unearned intimacy.
At the end of the show, we learn that the original musical, The Black Crook, was a box office success and earned a long run. Given what we saw, this only went to prove that there is no accounting for taste and that if you want to sell tickets to a musical, you need to put in some flesh – amply supplied by six French ballerinas recast as a chorus of can can dancers—to pull in audiences. I walked out thinking how sad for us all.
And the Curtain Rises
Music by Joseph Thalken . Lyrics by Mark Campbell . Book by Michael Slade
Directed by Kristin Hanggi
Produced by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Susan Galbraith
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission
- David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Brad Hathaway . Arlington Gazette
- Doug Rule . MetroWeekly
Graham . Washington City Paper
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
- Barbara MacKay . Washington Examiner