Charles Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I felt this way at the end of the Curtains opening night at the Pennsylvania Playhouse. The best of the show is the music, the ensemble numbers and the casting.
The worst was the script by Rupert Holmes. The lyrics by Fred Ebb and music by John Kander are unfamiliar, but delightful.
I go to musicals at Pennsylvania Playhouse always wondering what type of cast will show up.
Curtains is clearly in the well-cast and delightful group. The music in this show is the best I have heard at Playhouse, and among the best I have seen in the area.
The musicianship in this show is a delight. Vince Rostkowski - music and book director; Mariel LeTourneau – choreographer; and the cast deserve special kudos for this performance.
The orchestra, despite a few week moments in the overture and the entr’acte was on pitch and never obtrusive. This is the first Playhouse show I have attended where the orchestra did not remind us of its presence way too often.
The choreography was well designed to the strengths of the cast and well danced by that cast. The singing completed the requirements for an entertaining musical. I was amazed when in the early part of the second act I realized I had understood every word sung by the ensemble and soloists. I followed the diction in the singing better than the diction of several of the actors as they talked.
This show is a master class in how a community theatre can do a musical. It was the best of times.
The show runs almost three hours with one intermission. An old show business saying is the show is enjoyable as long as the butt can sit. Pseudoscience says the US butt can sit comfortably for two-hours and 15 minutes.
Neil Simon for his plays stipulates his script cannot be altered. He hones those scripts to a precise, masterful structure of exactly the right length. Other playwrights allow script alteration. Many of their scripts need either judicious trimming or exceptional actors to curry momentum in the dull parts. Hercules could not carry this script and neither could this or any amateur cast. It needed a Jenny Craigtm diet.
Every actor fit his or her part. Mike Daniels was a believable, soft-bitten detective with a yen to be on the stage. His singing is reminiscent of Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. I thought it fit the role perfectly.
Valerie Kumma played his ingénue love interest, Niki Harris. Megan Falasco and Ryan Doncsecz play a divorced song-writing team of Georgia Hendricks and Aaron Fox. Georgia is the belting role in this show. Falasco has a tendency to mix a little too much nasality into her belt. She does have a strong, attractive instrument. Doncesz plays her ex with fetching tenderness well reinforced with his singing.
The supporting cast delivers variety in the show. Shane Fischetti as Bobby Pepper and Allyssa Steiner as Bambi Bernet fit their roles. They become the third romantic couple in the play.
Both Pamela Webb as the producer Carmen Bernstein and James Vivian as the director Christopher Beiling are strong character actors who provide comic and dramatic relief through the show.
The problem with the show is the length of the second act.
It opens with Vince Rostkowski, in the role of Sasha Iljinsky the musical conductor in the show, singing “The Man is Dead,” It is a reprise of the company song “The Woman is Dead. Together the two songs are a belly-splitting delight. Rostkowski’s short solo was the best solo singing I heard this evening. To be fair, I have had a strong bias toward good baritone voices ever since my voice changed. I was transfixed by this song. Next, the company sang an equally delightful “He did it.” I was back in the magic of the first act primed for an equally delightful second act … and then, the script took over.
The next seventy minutes resolved the various romantic entanglements, solved the murders, rescued the ingénue, had a gunfight, sang some songs, had a psychopath scene, charged characters with crimes, dropped sand bags, gathered clues, danced a few numbers, rowed some boats, fixed the production number, and reopened the show in the show – not necessarily in that order.
There are only two ways to save an overlong script. The director can cut the script or the actors can carry the story. This script would have worked if about 20 minutes had been cut. It could have worked if the actors were able to give the script momentum.
For the second act in this show, the romantic couples need to be as good as couples as they were in their individual parts. If Cioffi was a little less of Rex Harrison and Nikki was less virginal, they would have carried their part of the second act. If Georgia and Aaron were a little more simpatico, their part could have worked. If Bambi and Bobby shared a more congruent physiognomy, their part might have worked. As it was, the script buried the second act.
Unlike a Neil Simon show where I have never seen a community theater production that was better than the script, this production is much better than this script.
Cotton closes A Tale of Two Cities saying “It is a far better thing I do, than I have ever done before.” Do a better thing and see this show. I loved it. You will love it.