We first see him stomping along in the dark, making his entrance past the tables at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater as if he’s an audience member who imbibed too much iced tea and can’t wait for intermission to use the bathroom. He’s a big guy: dressed in a blocky brown pinstriped suit, his hair cropped short and slicked back, his footsteps clunky. He talks big, too: a Boston accent as thick as chowder, loud and nasally, a voice that could startle a cat. Though he’s a police detective, he doesn’t seem to have a nimble bone in his body; he’s like a bulldozer with a gun.
And then Tyler Branco, playing Lt. Frank Cioffi in the sparkling Good Company Players production of “Curtains” at Roger Rocka’s Dinner Theater (continuing through Sept. 8), reveals his character’s love of musical theater. He turns to strike a dance pose in the song “Show People.” And suddenly he’s as light on his feet as a wispy ballerina. (Well, almost.) It’s one of those wide-smiled, goofy moments so endearing it sets the tone for the entire show.
One of the advantages of being a long-time theater critic and watching community actors grow and mature is getting to be present at the moment they offer a truly breakthrough performance. That’s the case with Branco in “Curtains,” who puts a big, comic stamp in the role of the detective tasked to solve the murder of a Broadway-bound musical’s much-loathed leading lady. Branco has offered fine supporting moments in previous GCP shows, from the blustery ex-husband in “The Wedding Singer” and the sweet-voiced crooner in “Paint Your Wagon” to the hilarious French taunter in “Spamalot.” Now, in a delightful turn in “Curtains,” he demonstrates he can carry a show.
I got the chance to watch David Hyde Pierce (the brother on “Frasier”) originate the role in the Broadway production. It was a consummate comic performance, as you’d imagine. Pierce’s Cioffi was droll and self-effacing, an extension of the veteran actor’s singular style.
Yet despite the daunting comparison with Pierce, I found myself at the GCP production liking Branco’s emphatically different performance take on the role just as much — if not better.
“Curtains,” which opened on Broadway in 2007, has a lot going for it besides Branco’s star turn. As the last show from the legendary songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb, it sports a lively score, keen lyrics poking fun at musical-theater conventions and a supremely silly book by Rupert Holmes. As a new title from GCP, it doesn’t have the name recognition of a classic, but don’t let that stop you from the charm of seeing it for the first time.
Cioffi pops up backstage at Boston’s Colonial Theatre in 1959, where opening night of a wretched musical titled “Robbin’ Hood of the Old West” has just played its opening night performance. Dead is leading lady Jessica Crenshaw (Paige Parker), who keeled over in the show’s final moments. An autopsy reveals she was poisoned — and Cioffi decides to quarantine the entire cast and crew in the theater until he can solve the murder.
Featuring a truly bad “play within a play” is a common musical device, and “Curtains” certainly isn’t among the tops in the genre in that regard. (“‘Robbin’ Hood” is no “Springtime for Hitler.”) It doesn’t matter if you try to figure out the plot of “Robbin’ Hood” because it doesn’t really matter. Suffice it to say it involves Kansas, the Old West, crossing a river and some really corny country dancing.
Far more important are the outsized characters that make up the cast and crew, who are indignant at having to remain cooped up in the theater. Laurie Pessano, as the show’s brassy producer, Carmen Bernstein, plays one of her greatest GCP comic roles. Whether she’s delivering rat-a-tat dialogue or belting out several punchy solos, she’s hilarious and yet officious in her silvery dress and fur-lined jacket combo. (Ginger Kay Lewis-Reed’s costumes are terrific.) When Pessano sings the wonderful “It’s a Business,” a realistic assessment of making one’s living from the theater, she comes from a place of both truth and parody, and in her hands it’s charming.
Other notables include Steve Souza as the uptight British director, Jacob Carrillo as the leading man, Jessica Sarkisian as the lyricist who steps in to the leading role, and Emily Pessano as the chorus girl hoping to make a name for herself. Ensemble member Isaac Lopez’s sunny stage presence really stands out, and Brian Rhea is amusing in a non-musical performance. Along with helping Branco shape such a distinctive character, director Elizabeth Fiester helps her other performers find the narrow line between believable and camp. The only supporting character that doesn’t have much oomph is Peter Allwine’s composer, a mostly thankless role and the play’s blandest.
Choreographer Kaye Migaki has a lot of fun with the ensemble dancing, getting a little daring with a notable performance by Emily Pessano. Evan Commins’ lights and David Pierce’s scenic design all nicely set the scene, including some abrupt shifts from backstage to onstage action.
There’s one important part of the show left to mention: a very fine love story. Dorie Sanders, in a sweetly measured performance that could have been played too broadly, captures just the right tone as the earnest Niki Harris, the petite actress who falls for the equally earnest Cioffi. (The feeling is mutual.) Sanders and Branco’s tender duet “A Tough Act to Follow” — they both have wonderful voices — actually comes across with real romantic feeling, an accomplishment for a lighthearted musical whodunit. Comedy, fine singing and a bona fide romance? All great reasons to love “Curtains.”