Hillbarn’s ‘Curtains’ sings to a different tune

After 74 seasons, it’s curtains for Hillbarn Theatre. Well, actually it’s “Curtains,” the musical murder mystery, which opened last weekend to mixed results.

The biggest part of the mystery is: Who killed the orchestra? The score by composer John Kander, to which the living-breathing actors sing and dance, is delivered via a recording cued to play at appointed times in the action.

It’s a move ripe for debate with local musicians left unemployed but theater production costs reduced. Your mileage may vary as you evaluate the tradeoff of eliminating too common brass bleats and reedy reeds with the homogenized, but somewhat flat, sound of this very elaborate karaoke.

Sound in general, as designed by Jesse Scarborough, troubled this production on opening night with missed cues at key moments and individual performer microphones prone to fade-out or bleed.

Director Nancy Fitzgerald-Metzler and Stephanie Dittbern’s lighting was only slightly less problematic, occasional leaving actors in obviously unintended blackouts. The set by Andrew J. Diggins and costumes by Valerie Emmi never rise above functional.

Characters die with Agatha Christie-precision in “Curtains,” which was beset by unfortunate real-life losses on its creative time as it marched to a 2007 Broadway premiere. Original librettist Peter Stone (“1776”) died in 2003 and lyricist Fred Ebb, Kander’s collaborator on “Cabaret,” “Chicago” and many others, died in 2006.

Doubly talented Rupert Holmes (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood”) helped polish both sides of the coin they left unfinished.

This musical about putting on a musical is a charming valentine to the art from and filled with archetypes. There’s the talent-free leading lady (Deborah Rosengaus), the estranged-but-temporarily-reunited songwriting team (Christopher M. Nelson and Katherine Stein), the obnoxious, manipulating, cheating producer (a surprise and well-played turn by Hillbarn Artistic Director Dan Demers), his brassy-but-put-upon wife (the superb Sasha Motalygo), her desparate-for-acceptance dance daughter (the hilarious Jessica Maxey), the egomaniacal director (the excellently over-the-top Raymond Mendonca), the innocent ingénue (the refreshingly bright Brandy Collazo), the happy hoofer (Charlie Fields), the loyal stage manager (endearingly played by Amnon Levy) and many more.

As the body count rises, it’s up to stage-struck Lt. Frank Cioffi (Ross Neuenfeldt) to herd the theatrical cats and figure out whodunit while simultaneously falling hard for the ingénue. </p>

In his third Hillbarn turn this season (after “The 39 Steps” and “Amadeus”), Neuenfeldt once again proved himself a deft comic everyman, with a sly, wry wit. This time he adds pleasing vocals and light-footed dancing to a not-so-bumbling Boston-accented Columbo.



Where: Hillbarn Theatre, 1285 East Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City

When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes May 31

Tickets: $23 to $42

Contact: (650) 349-6411, www.hillbarntheatre.org

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