The leading lady in the opening act of “Curtains” is absolutely dreadful, and the rest of the cast knows that she got the part only because she used to be a star. But the off-pitch diva suffers a fate worse than rotten tomatoes. She collapses on stage, the victim of poisoning.
Solving that mystery is at the core of “Curtains,” a Mainstage Theatre musical comedy that opens Friday.
The show has plenty of big song-and-dance numbers and, according to cast members, enough clues to keep the audience guessing whodunit until the final curtain.
“Curtains” was written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who also collaborated on the better-known musicals “Chicago” and “Cabaret.” Though “Curtains” isn’t as popular as the other Kander and Ebb show, it was nominated for eight Tony Awards when it opened on Broadway in 2008.
Though “Curtains” is a relatively new show, its singing and dancing styles harken back to older Broadway musicals, such as “Oklahoma!” That’s because “Curtains” includes a play-within-a-play — “Robbin Hood of the Old West,” a 1950s musical that dresses the Merry Men up as cowboys. The cast of “Robbin Hood” is trying to get to Broadway despite atrocious reviews in Boston.
After the diva dies, detective Frank Cioffi is assigned to the case. Several characters in the show seeminlgy have motives to murder the star. “There are opportunities for so many of the characters to be the culprit,” director Susan Donahue said.
It doesn’t help that Cioffi is a theater buff himself, filled with artistic ideas -- and loneliness.
“He’s pretty smart. He solves the whole case,” said Jack Tietjen, the R.A. Long senior who plays Cioffi.
But the detective isn’t interested just in solving the mystery. He starts romancing Niki Harris, the cast’s naive ingenue who had a motive to kill the leading lady because she was the original understudy.
“He does not think of her as part of the murders,” said Kristina Cox, the R.A. Long senior who plays Niki.
The plot gets more tangled, with blackmail, gunshots and romance.
“There are a lot of love interests going on,” said Sadie Nickerson, the R.A. Long junior who plays Georgia Hendricks, the female half of the songwriting team who ends up getting the lead role.
Several more cast members are dispatched during the show, making more work for Det. Cioffi.
Still, the lure of Broadway is enough to keep the cast of “Robbin Hood” going despite the annoying murders, Nickerson said. “We are stuck in the theater together, and no one knows who the murderer is,” she said.
R.A. Long senior Wyatt Hazel plays the composer Aaron Fox, who is separated from Nickerson’s character. “I am so bitter towards her,” Hazel said. “I create jealousy. I give it a kick.”
One of the clues revealed during the show should help the audience figure out the murderer if they pay attention, Cox said. “If they don’t watch that, it will be extremely difficult,” she cautioned.
However, the show isn’t all sleuthing. It includes a “huge dance number with sparkles and lights,” Cox said, plus lush harmonies with as many as seven parts.
One of the suspects is the show’s producer, Carmen Bernstein. “She’s a bunch of brass and sass,” said Carlie Arledge, the Mark Morris senior who has the role. The show must go on, despite a death here and there, because “I want to make money,” Arledge said of her character.
A subplot is the family rift between Bernstein and her daughter, who goes by the stage name Bambi (Mark Morris senior Alana McCoy). “I refuse to call her Bambi,” Arledge said.
The show seemed to be written with community theater in mind, Donahue said. The script suggests alternatives for some of the rough language. “I would still say parental guidance suggested,” Donahue said. “There is still a little bit of language.”
Donahue’s crew includes assistant directors Jamie Hegstad and Emily Quandt, vocal director Katherine Jansen and choreographer Teresa Jansen. Dan Reed directs the pit orchestra.