Why Signature Theatre changed the name of this production only a few months before its opening is a question I continued to ask myself throughout this lively musical. Originally called Wheatleys Folly to capture the central characters blustering determination to mount his playwright friends dreadful post-Civil War drama about a simple Midwestern family, the meaning for the change-of-heart title is not revealed until the end of the play.
Well, no matter, it is still Wheatleys folly, notwithstanding, and in spite of it the audience is taken on an uproarious, frequently slapstick, somewhat quirky and occasionally romantic adventure about the whimsical twists and haphazard turns emerging from the writing, re-writing and mounting of a new theater production, Return to Black Creek. The play within a play is based loosely on real events when the first American musical was born in the period following the Civil War.
The characters remember, the actors are actors are so appalled by the badly written and tenderfoot-directed play that they plead with both Wheatley (Nick Dalton), the plays manager and backer, and his friend and playwright Charles Barras (Sean Thompson), to change it.
Its foul! It stinks! Disgustingly cloying! they revolt in the song Someone Must Be Told. The musical diatribe arrives after Barras insists, Everyone must stand still while delivering lines! They implore the reluctant impresario Wheatley and his know-nothing playwright to save the play by making full-scale changes.
After disappearing for days on a mission of rewrites Barras returns with a single solution: to add a cough to the dialogue. The jaunty song Cough with the line, if mucus be the food of love, is the casts retort.
The intransigent Barras, challenged by Wheatley in a Money versus Art argument, deserts the production, and the showbiz neophyte adopts every hare-brained suggestion the cast and crew throw at him. Whole scenes are discarded, characters re-invented, tree silhouettes replace stalks of Kansan corn, cabins become mansions, and more performers are added in this topsy-turvy play within a-play.
Cue the swordfights, dry ice and small dog!
Leading lady Millicent Cavendish, played affectingly by Rebecca Watson, is an over-the-hill ingnue. Shes in her 30s. She has played Juliet 30 times.
One bad role and down it goes, she sagely remarks in House of Cards, reflecting on the imminent demise of her career should the show fail. When Wheatley urges her not to desert him in one of the shows most heartfelt numbers, Stay, Dalton has the audience in his thrall. Her reply, Enter Love, is a ballad whose sheet music will no doubt be in short supply when discovered by hordes of cabaret performers.
Other cast notables are Brian Sutherland as Roman Korda the Hungarian concert master, Kevin Carolan as mild-mannered aging funnyman C. H. Morton and Erick Devine as Jeremiah Burnett who evolves into the lyricist Hertzog, a Dr. Faustus type. Theres Anna Kate Bocknek as Marie Bonfant the coquettish ballerina, and Alma Cuervo as Madame Grimaud, the ballet mistress who convinces Wheatley that in order to succeed he needs, a little more glamour, a little more magic in the engaging tune, A Little More Pretend.
The acting is top-notch all around and the music by Mark Campbell and Joseph Thalken is luscious. Dozens of sets pivot seamlessly (designed by Beowulf Boritt) and a 17-piece live orchestra framed by lush red velvet drapes anchors center stage to great dramatic effect. Director Kristin Hanggi, who has worked with Pussycat Dolls Gwen Stephani and Christina Aguilera, puts an over-the-top play-it-for-everything-its-worth dynamic into this crazy wild burlesque and the audience is the better for it.
With 19 songs, chorines performing everything from ballet to high-kicking can-can, and more inside theatre jokes than a cat has lives (Whats next? Locusts?) And The Curtain Rises is a riotous send up of theatre warts and all.
And the Curtain Rises runs now through April 10 at Signature Theatre in Shirlington. For tickets and information visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-SEAT (7328).