Theater Three's production of Kander and Ebb's CURTAINS certainly is "A Tough Act to Follow"
BWW Review
Nicholas Pontolillo

Port Jefferson's Theater Three production of the musical murder mystery romp Curtains is brilliant; it is a clever mash up of Columbo meets Kiss Me, Kate. Curtains is a wonderful show that reveals how a show's ensemble is not just its cast, but also its creative team. It emphasizes the importance of each and every talent involved with putting on a Broadway show. From the stage manager to the conductor; from the music team to the director. Theater Three's production successfully emits this theme.

The show itself features an entertaining murder plot from the creative mind of Tony Award winner Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood); Holmes became involved with the production after Peter Stone's untimely death in 2003. Curtains also features some of the last collaborative compositions by the legendary songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb due to Ebb's passing in 2004. The mourning of Kander's songwriting partner is clearly present in "I Miss the Music", one of the show's ballads.

Curtains takes place at the Colonial Theater in Boston, 1959, where new musical "Robbin' Hood of the Old West" is completing an out of town tryout. On opening night of the tryout, the show's leading lady, Jessica Cranshaw, is murdered during curtain call. It's now up to police officer and musical theatre fan, Lt. Frank Cioffi, to solve the backstage murder and try to help the theatre people work out the show's complications.

What truly is wonderful about Curtains is that every actor within the production is given a moment to shine; I myself was fantastically blinded by the wonderful acting ensemble at Theater Three. Among the bright stars are: Steve McCoy as the theatre loving Lt. Frank Cioffi, who truly captures the role's joviality and brings heart to the show ; Long Island theater great Mary Ellin Kurtz as show producer Carmen Bernstein, who is wonderfully hilarious and brassy emitting tones of Ethel Merman; and Matt Senese is wonderfully camp as the show's director Christopher Belling. Jeffrey Sanzel does a fine job directing this ode to the theater. Whitney Stone, currently represented off-Broadway with Molasses in January, brilliantly showcases her choreography here, especially with the brilliant dance routine performed by Nicole Bianco and Dylan Robert Poulos in "Kansasland". Stone's choreography for the Act II show-stopper "A Tough Act to Follow" is absolutely beautiful and a crowd-pleaser as well; I was instantly reminded of the great dance routines of Fred and Ginger. Jeffrey Hoffman not only leads the stellar 8-piece pit orchestra for the show, but also inhibits the role of the Sasha Iljinsky, the show within a show's conductor; he leads the Act II opener with hilarity. This was a brilliant move on book writer Holmes's part as it truly emphasizes the importance of the musical conductor in a stage production. A round of applause must also be given to scenic designer Randall Parsons; Parsons beautifully makes use of the 160 year old Athena Hall as Boston's Colonial Theatre.

Theatre Three is wrapping up it's 48th season with this fantastic production. Curtains will be running through June 23. Theater Three definitely has a challenge to face with mounting their next production of The Addams Family in September as their production of Curtains truly is "A Tough Act to Follow".

Steve McCoy (Lt. Frank Cioffi) & Jenna Kavaler (Niki Harris). Courtesy of Theatre Three

From L to R: TracyLynn Conner (Georgia Hendricks), Mary Ellin Kurtz (Carmen Bernstein), Jeffrey Pangburn (Oscar Shapiro), James D. Schultz (Aaron Fox). Courtesy of Theatre Three

Nicole Bianco (Bambi Bernet) & Dylan Robert Poulos (Bobby Pepper). Courtesy of Theatre Three

MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD at Riverside Theatre

Derek and Janet (Todd and Amber Hanson) argue in a scene from "Accomplice."

Riverside Theatre's Waxlax stage turns into a high-spirited Victorian musical hall with its robust and meticulous production of "The Mystery of Edwin Drood." Directed by DJ Salisbury, the concept here is immersive theater. So expect to participate, comfortably, that is. The audience is not expected to get on stage (thank God) to sing or improvise. But they will join the lusty, laugh-filled party in sing-a-longs and hearty approval of the heroic and disapproval of the villainous. And, audiences get to vote on whodunit and also choose a pair of lovers (may Dionysus smile upon you and have Durdles be one of the chosen).

This is the slimmed down version of Rupert Holmes' Tony Award winning musical based on Charles Dickens' unfinished novel. Rather than a cast of nearly two dozen, as it was originally written in 1985, here 11 performers and a five-piece music combo reenact, in grande Delsarte fashion, a tale inhabited by a host of deliciously rococo Dickensian characters.

This is the second professional production of this version, which Salisbury helped Holmes create during a workshop in New York City 10 years ago. Salisbury, who is also a choreographer, and his excellent, professional cast bring a witty, intricate buoyancy to the stage, reflective of the complicated story.

As The Chairman, the wonderful Warren Kelley, begins the proceedings by advising the audience to get involved and urging them to intone the name "Drood" with playful dread. Kelley won hearts as Vanya in "Vanya & Sonia & Masha & Spike" two years ago at Riverside and three years ago as Atticus Finch in Orlando Shakes' "To Kill a Mockingbird." Here, he is the conduit between audience and story. We are introduced to the rest...and what a "the rest" it is. Salisbury very wisely waits until the show is over before handing out the programs, not only to keep the Victorian musical hall ambience, but also so you can feel vindicated when you whisper to your friends "That woman playing Edwin Drood is so good...has she ever done Elphaba?" That woman is the stunning Anne Brummel, who takes on the role of Edwin Drood, a conceit woven into the actual Victorian music hall experience. (And yes, she's been the green witch, both as a Broadway standby and performing the role in national tour.) While Brummel nails that Broadway stage swagger typical for leading men, she also serves up an unforgettable duet "Perfect Strangers", which she sings with delightful songbird Rachael Ferrera, who is Rosa Bud, Drood's intended.

John Paul Almon brings such funny restraint to the trustworthy Reverend Mr. Crisparkle. After working at Radio City Music Hall, Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and more, Almon certainly has that appeal of a seasoned actor who knows how to work the audience with a mere glance of his eye.

Additionally, there are Norman Large and Sally Mayes, two performers with hefty professional credits from Broadway to "Star Trek." As Durdles, the gravedigger, Large is a hoot, constantly scratching his behind and leerin' at the "ligh-dees." But this actor, who has performed with Leonard Bernstein and Seiji Ozawa and performed multiple roles in "Les Miserables" on Broadway, certainly knows his way around a song. So too does Mayes, who, as Princess Puffer the opium purveyor, wrings out the emotional, heartfelt surprise in the evening with the song "The Garden Path to Hell." Oh my, to see her in "Sweeney Todd," or better still, "She Loves Me" for which she received a Tony, Drama Desk and Outer Critics nominations.

Claire Neumann and Brian Krinsky are comic hoots as Helena and Neville Landless, mysterious twins from Ceylon. Sarah Primmer and Peter Saide entertain as Flo and Drood's uncle, John Jasper. You'll want to see more of oh-so-funny Neumann, who really brightens the stage with exquisite timing and energetic comic expression, which even shows in her speech.

You'll also want to see more of Andrew Sellon, who brings the same Chaplin-esque feel to his role of Bazzard as he did a year ago to his role as Gaston, the chef in Riverside's production of "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf."

The music combo, led by music director Anne Shuttlesworth, stays toe to toe with this professional cast from first downbeat to the final flourish.

Moreover, the look of the show is pumped to the extreme. Kurt Alger's lavish costumes are sublime. He doesn't spare a thread, nor a button nor a splash of fur in adding to the visual treat set in the audience's lap. One such costume is donned merely for an exit of an irate character (Brummel). Alger even lets loose with fabulous wigs (oh, Warren Kelley, we've never seen you so perky). Richard Crowell's scenic design is big and hearty and Sarah Elliott's lighting design brings warmth and cheeriness to it. And kudos as well goes to professional stage manager Amy M. Bertacini, who keeps all these elements on perfect pitch.

This is such a splendid and memorable evening in the theater. You will be transported, lifted out of this daily miasma of gloom and dread into something cheery and fun. Indeed, Riverside's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" is like a big party. And you get to play. Don't miss it. Tickets are disappearing!

Review: Riverside Theatre's 'The Mystery of Edwin Drood' is fun entertainment

By Angela Smith, Special to TCPalm

Seeing a musical without an established ending might seem odd. But in the case of Riverside Theatre's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," where the ending is decided by the audience, it's magical.

The cast members not only do a fine job presenting the story and creating zany characters, but the opening night audience's participation made the production entertaining and enjoyable.

Based on the unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, the 1986 five-time Tony Awardwinning musical comedy by Rupert Holmes, revolves around the murder of Edwin Drood (Anne Brummel).

But this whodunithas at least 44 possible endings involving seven different murderers. Even the "Drood" cast doesn't knows who the murderer is at the start of every performance. The cast takes it in stride, knowing what to do at every twist and turn, making it an exciting murder mystery.

The production also is unique in that it's a play-within-a-play. The cast members break out of their "Drood" characters and become members of the "Music Hall Royale" and circulate among the audience, introducing themselves. While that interaction can sometimes be a tad uncomfortable for some theatergoers, most enjoyed the exchanges Tuesday night.

The heart of the show is the narrator or Chairman (Warren Kelly) who sets up a story the audience will help resolve.

There are many characters who, for one reason or another, would want Drood dead, including John Jasper (Peter Saide), Drood's uncle who has a creepy obsession with Drood's fiancé, Rosa Bud (Rachael Ferrera), who ends up calling off her engagement to Drood just minutes before he disappears.

As the musical continues, more characters are introduced explaining in song their motivation for possibly killing Drood, including Durdles (Norman Large); Bazzard (Andrew Sellon); Reverend Crisparkle (John Paul Almon), who was once Rosa's mother's lover; Jasper's opium proprietor Princess Puffer (Sally Mayes); and the twins, Helena (Claire Neumann) and Neville Landless (Brian Krinsky), who is attracted to Rosa. All seem suspicious when Drood disappears Christmas Eve and is assumed murdered.

Once the story hits its climax, the real fun begins and the audience gets to weigh in on who they think not only killed Drood, but who will be the detective and which couple falls in love at the end.

On opening night, Reverend Crisparkle won the popular vote as the murderer.