The setup: I ask you, what's the hardest job on Broadway? Writing a lousy show or acting in one? Granted, nobody, except The Producers' Max Bialystock wants to produce a bomb, so when musical veterans John Kander and Fred Ebb (composer and lyricist of classics Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman and other shows just this side of showbiz paradise) come up with such a clunker, there's got to be a reason.
Death's a pretty good excuse, of course, and since Ebb died during the writing, as did book writer Peter Stone (a previous triple-threat winner of Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards), it's conceivable that the loss of both major talents had a hand in the show's utter lack of luster. Sad to report, sometimes even grand old pros don't see the mess right in front of their eyes.
The execution: Set backstage during the out-of-town previews of a 1950s-style musical, TUTS's Curtains is a murder mystery. (This allows Kander and Ebb to spoof old-fashioned Broadway show tunes in the show-within-the-show scenes. The attempt is bafflingly flat and uninspired.) The untalented leading lady gets knocked off and everybody in the cast is suspect. The show's not working, and the detective who arrives (Robert Newman from TV's Guiding Light) is a big old show queen who not only puts the show back on track but solves the increasing amount of murders and falls for the ingénue.
It's sort of like Columbo goes Glee, which might be fun, if there'd be any humor lurking in the wings. But it's only a sorry collection of backstage clichés that went out of date before Ruby Keeler hoofed her way through 42nd Street. You wait while the lame jokes thud on arrival and the usual array of characters parades by: the battle-axe lady producer, the sexy understudy, the love-starved song-writing duo, the witty, harried director, etc., etc.
There's nothing new here, and that's the saddest thing of all. It's like Kander and Ebb opened their musty trunk of discarded songs and pulled out stuff that sounds like it came from another, better show -- sometimes a jazzy riff from Cabaret or a vamp from Chicago floats by to jolt you awake.
The verdict: Pity the cast, who does its damnest to make this B-material play like it was penned by Damon Runyon and Frank Loesser. They're veterans and hams of the highest quality (Kim Zimmer, Ed Dixon), lovely singers (Kevin Kern, Amanda Rose) or quality gypsies (Helen Anker, David Elder), and they knock themselves out to polish this wax apple of a show.
It gleams, when lit a certain way, and it even sparkles a little, but take a bite -- it's just glue and sawdust, created by show people who should've known better.
Curtains runs through April 10 at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For ticket information, call 713-558-8887. $24-$119.