The word “alchemy” is defined as transforming base metals into gold, and that pretty much describes what Orange County’s nomadic Alchemy Theater Co. is attempting to accomplish with the musical whodunit “Curtains” now on stage at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
“Curtains” is billed as a Kander and Ebb musical, but John Kander only came aboard after the death of Fred Ebb in 2006. This isn’t “Cabaret” or “Chicago” but it’s serviceable and occasionally entertaining.
The book, by Rupert Holmes, is a joint venture of two showbiz styles — musical comedy and murder mystery — as a theater group strives to put a rather shaky Broadway-bound show together in Boston, circa 1959, while a killer strikes again and again. Murder and comedy aren’t usually teamed, but the Alchemy players take their best shot under the direction of Miguel Cardenas.
It all begins when a notoriously incapable leading lady drops dead at the curtain call. Lori Lewis does a good job of playing a bad actress, then joins the ensemble for the rest of the show.
A Boston homicide detective — who happens to be a huge theater fan — arrives to investigate and winds up striving to fix the show as well. Paul Zellhart gives a robust performance as the cop who divides his time between crime solving and show doctoring and takes a shine to a lovely chorus girl, nicely played by Kumari Small.
Jenise Shourds lends a fine voice to her role as the lyricist pressed into action as the dead star’s replacement. Jake Burnett as her partner in both writing and matrimony simmers as the leading man (Josh Alvarez) appears to be beating his time, so to speak.
Janet McGregor is most impressive as an investor in the show and mother of one of its dancers, delivering the top number, “It’s a Business,” detailing her avaricious interest in the theater. The daughter (Jessica Bill) has a ton of talent despite Mom’s cryptic comments and she shows it in a sexy dance number.
The show’s director is an oh-so-proper Brit (Michael Buss) who finds himself upstaged by the cop. A theater critic from a Boston paper (Trevor Rodman) is an uninvited and unwanted guest while Autumn Ericson as the stage manager struggles to keep order.
Musical director Jessica Cosley has her hands full with a score that’s hardly the best work of either Kander or Ebb. Emily Turner’s choreography is bright and bouncy, while Justine Senna’s costumes fit the period nicely.
It’s refreshing to encounter a show that hasn’t been over-produced, and this one scores on the energy of its company rather than the inventiveness of its creators. There are moments well worth watching in this enthusiastic visitor to the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
If You Go
Who: Alchemy Theater Co.
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. through May 26
Tickets: (949) 650-5269 or CostaMesaPlayhouse.com
Tom Titus reviews local theater for TimesOC.