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And The Curtain Rises – A Wild and Crazy, Everything-But-The-Kitchen-Sink Musical Delight At Signature Theatre

Jordan Wright
March 29th, 2011
Special to The Washington Examiner

Nick Dalton as Wheatley. Photo Courtesy of Show Producer

Nick Dalton as Wheatley. Photo Courtesy of Show Producer

Why Signature Theatre changed the name of this production only  a few months before its opening is a question I continued to ask myself  throughout this lively musical.   Originally entitled, Wheatley’s  Folly, referring to the central character’s blustering determination to  mount his playwright friend’s dreadful drama about a simple Midwestern family  after the Civil War, the meaning for the change-of-heart title is not revealed  until the end of the play.  Well, no   matter, it is still Wheatley’s folly, notwithstanding, and in spite of it the  audience is taken on an uproarious, frequently slapstick, somewhat quirky and occasionally   romantic adventure about theatre life and the whimsical twists and haphazard  turns that emerge from the writing, re-writing and mounting of a new production called, “Return to Black Creek”.  Based  loosely on real events when the first American musical was born in the period  following the Civil War.

The characters, remember the actors are actors (are you  still with me here?), are so appalled by the badly-written and novicely-directed  play that they plead with both Wheatley, the play’s manager and backer (played  by Nick Dalton), and his friend Charles Barras, its playwright (Sean Thompson),  to change it.  “It’s foul!  It stinks! Disgustingly cloying!” they revolt,  in the song “Someone Must Be Told” after Barras insists, “Everyone must stand  still while delivering lines!”  They  implore the reluctant impresario and his know-nothing playwright to save the  play by making full-scale changes.

After disappearing for days on a mission of rewrites Barras returns with a single solution…to add a cough to the dialogue.  The jaunty song “Cough” with the line, “If mucus be the food of love” is the cast’s retort.

The intransigent Barras, challenged by Wheatley in a Money versus Art argument, deserts the production, and the showbiz neophyte adopts every hare-brained suggestion the cast and crew throw at him.  Whole scenes are discarded, characters re-invented, even tree silhouettes replace stalks of Kansan corn, cabins become
mansions, and more performers (after a fire next door an entire French ballet company is taken in and pressed into service) are added in this topsy-turvy play-within-a-play.  Cue the swordfights, dry ice and small dog!

Leading lady, Millicent Cavendish, played affectingly by Rebecca Watson

Leading lady, Millicent Cavendish, played affectingly by Rebecca Watson

Leading lady, Millicent Cavendish, played affectingly by Rebecca Watson, is an over-the-hill ingénue. She is in her 30’s.  She has played Juliet 30 times. “One bad role and down it goes,” she sagely remarks as she reflects on the imminent demise of her career should the show fail in the song “House of Cards”.  When Wheatley urges her not to desert him in one of the show’s most heartfelt numbers, “Stay”, Dalton has the audience in his thrall. Her reply, “Enter Love”, is a ballad whose sheet music will no doubt be in short supply when it is discovered by hordes of cabaret performers.

Other cast notables are Brian Sutherland as Roman Korda the Hungarian concert master, Kevin Carolan as mild-mannered aging funnyman C. H. Morton, Erick Devine as Jeremiah Burnett who evolves into the lyricist Hertzog, a Dr. Faustus type, Anna Kate Bocknek as Marie Bonfant the coquettish ballerina, and Alma Cuervo as Madame Grimaud, the Ballet Mistress, who convinces Wheatley in order to succeed he needs, “a little more glamour, a little more magic” in the engaging tune, “A Little More Pretend”.

The acting is top-notch all around and the music (by Mark Campbell and Joseph Thalken) is luscious. Dozens of sets pivot seamlessly (designed by Beowulf Boritt) and a 17-piece live orchestra framed by lush red velvet drapes, anchors center stage to great dramatic effect.  Director Kristin Hanggi, who has worked with the Pussycat Dolls, Gwen Stephani and Christina Aguilera, puts an over-the-top play-it-for-everything-its-worth dynamic into this crazy wild burlesque and the audience is the better for it.

With nineteen songs, chorines performing everything from ballet to high-kicking can-can, and more insider theatre jokes than a cat has lives, “What’s next? Locusts?” carps Rose Morton delightfully played by Jennifer Smith, And The Curtain Rises is a riotous send up of theatre – warts and all.

Now through April 10th at Signature Theatre, Arlington, VA.  For tickets and information visit or call 703 573-SEAT (7328).

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