** stars (out of four)
If musicals about musicals are to be taken at face value, creating one is no cakewalk. Consider the neurotic cast of A Chorus Line or the insecure, self-doubting characters of the quirky 2008 Broadway musical Title of show. Bearing in mind the constant rejection, the razor-sharp critics, and the looming specter of failure, what sane person would even dream of funding such an expensive proposition as an untested musical?
The answer, at least locally, is Signature Theatre, whose American Musical Voices Project is dedicated to funding and staging full runs of new musicals. And the Curtain Rises, which runs through April 10, is the third show in the series (following 2009’s Giant and last year’s Sycamore Trees) and turns, unironically, to the production of musicals for inspiration. Loosely based on the lore behind America’s first musical, The Black Crook, the show follows the exploits of producer William Wheatley as he attempts to stage his own New York production in 1866. He has a few minor problems, which are mainly that his script stinks, his actors are rebelling, his stage is falling apart, and unexpected spiraling costs are about to bankrupt him.
If this sounds all too familiar (here’s looking at you, Julie Taymor), it is. The history behind The Black Crook is interesting enough, but the hokey old premise of poking fun at the business of Broadway has been done before, with an entire show dedicated to two unscrupulous producers. So what’s left for And the Curtain Rises is a history that’s largely invented. Wheatley (Nick Dalton) has risked half his inheritance on producing a play written by his friend Charles Barras (Sean Thompson), who ostensibly saved Wheatley’s life during the Civil War. Barras has a limp due to a gunshot wound, which he moodily exaggerates whenever his writerly authority is questioned.
Barras’s play, about a poverty-stricken family in the cornfields of Iowa, is horrible, which prompts a lot of grumbling from the cast, including star Millicent Cavendish (Rebecca Watson). Things are complicated further when a neighboring theater burns down, obliging Wheatley to offer shelter to a troupe of French ballerinas; their manipulative choreographer, Madame Grimaud (Alma Cuervo); and an accompanist who’s a frustrated composer, Roman Korda (Brian Sutherland). Finally, during the end of the first act, a pipe bursts, literally (and unnecessarily) flooding the stage and ruining Wheatley’s costumes.
For some reason, all of this prompts Wheatley to abandon the original concept and turn it into a German fairy tale, complete with an evil baron, fencing, and a demon posse led by the great Stalacta, all of which absolutely undermines our ability to respect him as a protagonist. And this is largely the problem with And the Curtain Rises. What the show practically begs for is a degree of self-mockery, and yet it keeps taking itself absolutely seriously. Awfully earnest numbers such as “Trust Yourself,” in which William determines to keep going, and “Stay,” in which he begs Millicent to remain a part of the production, are cornier than all the husks representing Iowa onstage, and the only enjoyably hammy character, Charles, disappears for almost all of the second act.
Even worse, there are constant meta reminders of what makes a bad play, which are inevitably repeated by the show itself. During an attempt to write a song, one character scrolls through the alphabet until he rhymes “weaken” with “beacon,” while the show’s lyrics are almost as forced (“Trust yourself, and do not prattle; trust yourself, as you did before a battle”). What’s more, characters poking fun at awkward sets makes for uncomfortable watching when real doors fail to shut and real sheaves of corn fall over.
Composer Joseph Thalken had an interesting concept with the history of musicals, but he fails to see that some absurdity is necessary when you’re dealing with the artistic process. It’s hard to believe that director Kristin Hangii—whose résumé includes a Tony nomination for 2009’s Rock of Ages and a stint developing and directing the Pussycat Dolls—couldn’t pull more fun out of this sadly laughable (in all the wrong ways) production.
And the Curtain Rises is at Signature Theatre through April 10. Tickets ($55 to $87) available at Signature’s Web site.