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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

American musicals: They just don't make 'em like they used to... well, almost. Last week, Los Angeles hosted the world premiere of Curtains, a new musical comedy written by John Kander and Fred Ebb. This duo wrote their first Broadway show together 41 years ago and would go on to pen Cabaret and Chicago--not to mention a little ditty titled New York, New York. At the time of Mr. Ebb's death in 2004, the songwriting team was working on four musicals, and one of these was Curtains. With the help of Rupert Holmes and director Scott Ellis, Curtains was completed and brought to the Ahmanson Theatre, were it received a warm reception at a celebrity-filled opening night last Wednesday.

These days, Kander and Ebb's style is a throwback to the time when musical comedy--as opposed to musical spectacle--ruled on Broadway. In this tradition, Curtains is a crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word. The show aims to entertain and it does, with a mixture of show-biz chutzpah and solid (if uninspired) craftsmanship.

David Hyde Pierce plays Lieutenant Frank Cioffi, a Boston detective who solves the backstage murder of a producer--and in doing so, solves the the problems plaguing the deceased's show. Pierce's deadpan works well in this role of the dramaturge/detective. In a show about "show people," his shambling, low key persona is a good counter balance to the brassy actors, directors, and producers he investigates.

Deborah Monk plays one of these brassy types, Carmen Bernstein. It's an Ethel Merman-style role and Monk supersizes every gag and song she touches--namely "Show People," an Act I showstopper about Broadway's bottom line. The rest of the ensemble is strong, but doesn't stand out much--with the exception of Edward Hibbert. As in last season's Drowsy Chaperone, Hibbert's dry delivery helps him steal just about every scene he's in. As for the songs, besides "Show People," two other numbers stick in the ear: Act I's "Coffee Shop Nights," a Rex Harrison-style speech-song that plays to David Hyde Pierce's strengths and Act II's "In the Same Boat," an eleventh-hour number about an eleventh-hour number.

At one point Hibbert's character, asks the show-within-a show's composer for a new song: "and don't give me any of your Eine Kleine Trunk Music." It's a funny line, but it hits close to home, as much of the music has a sort of off-the-rack feel. This is not to say that Curtains is made up of old songs and melodies Kander and Ebb had laying around; but it does seem that rather than taking old forms and reinventing them (like they did with such panache using German cabaret songs in Cabaret and vaudeville tunes in Chicago) the duo is simply using the show-within-a-show format to give a sense of irony or distance to their old-fashioned style.

Many of the songs in Curtains sound like variations on previous Kander and Ebb numbers, but its hard not to enjoy them--if only because no one writes songs like Kander and Ebb anyone. Bland power ballads wallpaper most Broadway spectacles these days, and the tradition of Rogers & Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter seems to be fading.

If there's anyone who can single-handedly save the American musical comedy, it might be Jack Black. The comic actor has yet to perform on Broadway (and probably won't for some time given his success in film) but on the basis of one number in Sunday night's semi-staged Jesus Christ Superstar at the Ricardo Montalban Theatre, Black proved that he may be the American musical's messiah.

His intense eyes, exaggerated gestures, and bottomless energy all translate perfectly to the musical stage. Black played King Herod, who's one song, "Try it and see," is a sendup of old music hall routines, and Black's playful antics make it clear that he's fluent in the conventions of musical comedy. Perhaps Black's comfort on stage comes from his days in California Youth Theatre--a nonprofit training program for students. This production of J.C.Superstar was a gala benefit for Youtheatre America! a new organization which is a national version of CYT. (which staged Superstar back in the 1970's) CYT founder Jack Nakano is trying to use the rising property values in Hollywood as a way to revitalize the old theaters in the neighborhood (like the Montalban and the Ivar) and fill them with people in their teens and 20's--both on stage and in the audience.

Many in the sold-out audience were older fans, who came for the nostalgia of seeing early interpreters of the roles like Ted Neeley, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen and Ben Vereen; but there were also more younger people in the crowd than you would find at the Pantages or Ahmanson for a musical. Some of this is no doubt due to the youthful spirit of Andrew Lloyd Webber's rock opera; but let's hope it's also due to a younger generation yearning to be engaged with the theater. If anything is going to keep the curtain from coming down on musical comedy in this country, it's groups like Youtheatre America--and of course, performers like Jack Black.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

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