A well-deserved Playhouse curtain call




Old-fashioned fun has been conspicuously absent on the community-theater circuit this season.

Sure, there have been unforgettable productions of Pulitzer-winning dramas (the Oakland Center for the Arts’ “Wit” and “Dinner With Friends”) and a spectacular Top Hat rendition of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’ socially conscious musical epic “Ragtime.”

But if divorce, terminal cancer and racism aren’t your idea of a jolly night out, the pickings may have seemed a tad on the lean side.

Thank heaven for the Youngstown Playhouse! The high-energy Playhouse production of “Curtains,” which opened to a packed house Friday night, is a veritable cavalcade of delights.

Michael Dempsey’s brassy, glitzy, well-nigh irresistible staging of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s 2007 Broadway hit officially announces the return of unadulterated pleasure to the area theater scene.

If “Curtains” is an example of what’s in store at the Playhouse under the tutelage of new Executive Director Mary Ruth Lynn, the old gray lady deserves to be around for another 100 years.

Largely stripped of the bone-weary cynicism that distinguishes Kander and Ebb’s most famous works (“Cabaret” and “Chicago”), “Curtains” just wants to entertain. Rupert Holmes’ book is an affectionate pastiche of both classic backstage musicals and Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries. (Think “And Then There Were None on 42nd Street.”)

And if the songs don’t quite grab you with the home-run swagger of an “All That Jazz” or “Maybe This Time,” the peppy score bounces merrily along, serving up one double (“Thinking of Him”) and triple (standout number “A Tough Act to Follow”) after another.

When the despised leading lady of Broadway-bound musical “Robbin’ Hood of the Old West” drops dead during the opening-night curtain call, Boston detective Frank Cioffi (Josh Lewis) is called in to investigate. Sequestering the cast and crew inside the theater, Frank begins his inquiry into the mysterious death of Jessica Cranshaw (Regina Reynolds). Since Frank also is an unabashed theater buff, he uses the opportunity to play script doctor for the troubled production. By the end of Act Two, Frank has not only cracked the case but fixed the show and won the heart of “Robbin’ Hood” ingenue Niki Harris (Lindsay Heath) as well.

In an astonishing Playhouse debut, Kent State senior Lewis delivers a bona fide star-is-born performance that’s as remarkably assured as it is effortlessly charming. Also terrific are Heath (another Playhouse first-timer), Geri DeWitt (tough-talking “Robbin’ Hood” producer Carmen Bernstein), Tom O’Donnell (so deliciously over the top as twitty British director Christopher Belling that he’s just about perfect), Eric Kibler (long-suffering co-producer Oscar Shapiro) and Rob Dumovic and Kayla Boye (two more wonderfully gifted YP newbies). Reynolds, Bernie Appugliese, Alan McCreary, Amy Russell and Glenn Stevens round out the bustling ensemble in stellar fashion.

One of the most eye-popping Youngstown Playhouse shows on record, “Curtains” features Broadway-caliber production values courtesy of Jim Lybarger and Cherie Stebner’s luxurious scenic design and costumes. (Kudos also to Backdrops Beautiful and JaDuke Scene Shop for their invaluable contributions.)

Musical director Gary Kekel does splendid work leading his seven-member orchestra (thanks to some snazzy new sound equipment, no YP show has ever sounded better), and choreographer Carrie Mazzuco clearly put her heart and soul into staging the many elaborate dance routines.

While Dempsey may lack New Castle Playhouse guru Michael Cavalier’s genius for staging dioramalike human tableaux (which might have come in handy with this super-sized cast), he maintains such a jaunty pace that you’ll hardly notice. Not even some second-act longueurs — or a few misplaced kicks and thrusts among the otherwise sterling chorus — can rain on Dempsey’s ticker-tape parade.

“Curtains” runs through next Sunday at the Youngstown Playhouse. For tickets, call 330-788-8739.

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