True stories are tempting fodder for theatermakers, and there’s probably no more alluring topic than show business itself: From Follies to 42nd Street to Noises Off to A Chorus Line, the pangs and pleasures of the performer’s life have provided plenty of voyeuristic entertainment. And really, what’s more nail-biting fun for a theater-loving audience than the prospect of a looming disaster on opening night, averted in the nick of time by a desperate impresario and his game-for-anything cast?
That’s what’s on offer in And the Curtain Rises, loosely inspired by the events that birthed what some call the first American musical. And though Signature Theatre’s world-premiere production feels a little overstuffed and a little undercooked, it’s undeniably a handsome staging—one whose own spirited, appealing cast makes the time pass pleasantly enough.
The setup: It’s 1866, and first-time producer William Wheatley (Nick Dalton) has sunk half his inheritance into Return to Black Creek, a melodrama that seemed promising on the page, but looks patently dreadful in the rehearsal room where we join the action. With opening night in sight, his bankable star (Rebecca Watson) and prickly novice writer (Sean Thompson) seem to be developing a healthy loathing for each other. Meanwhile, the leading lady’s boy toy is angling for more stage business, and the married couple booked for the comic relief is squabbling over whether the husband can get a dog. Things look pretty grim by the shores of Black Creek—and that’s before the theater next door burns down, and a troupe of stranded French ballerinas takes up residence in the company’s dressing rooms.
So far, so good, right? What if I tell you that the producer is plainly falling for the star, the writer is quite obviously hiding a Big Secret, and the ballerinas’ accompanist and the eminent Shakespearean are eyeing each other with interest? And that all of this potential for comedy is overlaid with a shellacking of romance and a sealant topcoat of weariness and rue—this being, after all, just a year or so after Appomattox, with the grim toll of the Civil War still fresh in everyone’s minds.
What I’m getting is that composer Joseph Thalken and his collaborators, Michael Slade (book) and Mark Campbell (lyrics), have bitten off a lot, and on press night it seemed like they might still be chewing. The music ranges from serviceable period pastiche (“Marriage Is a Dance”) to unsubtle character song (“Trust Yourself” and “A House of Cards”) to tender breakthrough ballad (“Stay”); few of the lyrics have much in the way of spark, and only the last melody lingers in memory.
The storytelling, meanwhile, ratchets up pressure nicely on Wheatley and his cast—Writer storms off in huff! Sets and costumes ruined by plumbing ex machina!—but as our hero conscripts the pianist into writing some tunes for the boy toy (who turns out to have a sweet tenor) and deploys the ballerinas for a dance number to cover an awkward costume change, the tone veers uncertainly from bright comedy to sober relationship drama. Cartoon tantrums from Thompson’s hotheaded scribe give way to serious consideration of Wheatley’s fiscal peril and the risk to star Millicent Cavendish’s career—which in turn segue into a tiresomely broad series of sillinesses involving the prima ballerina (Anna Kate Bocknek) and her hunt for a maaaaaaaaaaan.
Kristin Hanggi’s cast is an engaging lot, which makes all the confuddle less tiresome than it might be. And her design team—Kathleen Geldard did the knowingly theatrical costumes, Beowulf Boritt the ingenious pop-up book of a set—has put substantial spectacle on the relatively small stage at Signature’s Max.
And the Curtain Rises might make a bright little backstage comedy, given another round or two of revisions, and it’s got some of the bones of a sweet romance. But it’s also trying to be a commentary, Thalken et al. have said, on the nature of collaboration—about the art of making art, as another musical on the creative impulse famously put it.
In this case, the artists in question may need to think about which of those things they’re best at, and put the focus more firmly there.
Photograph 51 By Anna Ziegler Directed by Daniella Topol; At Theater J to April 24
Perhaps the one topic more beloved to playmakersthan playmakers themselves is the tragic tale of a solitary unsung hero, and few heroes would seem to have been more unsung and more inclined toward the solitary than Rosalind Franklin. A prickly researcher who toiled in the labs of King’s College in the wake of World War II, she obsessively pursued hard data on the structure of DNA. She found it, too—and the tale of how the names Watson and Crick would come to be more associated than hers with that discovery is central to Photograph 51; the production takes its title from a breakthrough image Franklin captured with the X-ray camera that was both her greatest tool and her probable executioner. (She died of ovarian cancer at 37.)
If Anna Ziegler’s efficient 95-minute biodrama feels a little let’s-tell-a-story in its dramaturgy, and if its conversations get once or twice a little fact-and-figure-ish, the playwright still puts plenty of flesh on her tale’s bones. Better, Daniella Topol’s warm and personable cast brings the supporting characters—an intensely disagreeable Watson, a bluff, worldly Crick, and Franklin’s emotionally constipated, professionally unsupportive colleague Maurice Wilkins among them—admirably to life.
Best of all is the wonderfully convincing Elizabeth Rich, whose passion and intensity provide the story with a solid, satisfying emotional center. Her Franklin comes across as blisteringly intelligent, understandably aggrieved, frustratingly unaware of how alienating she is in her unbending seriousness, and painfully conscious of her own limits.
Did institutional sexism limit Franklin’s accomplishments? Did her own combativeness derail collaborations that might have taken her across the goal line first? Did Watson and Crick cross a line when they looked at that photo without her permission—or when a Cambridge colleague slipped them a copy of a report she’d written about its implications? Slippery questions, some still unresolved in the real world—and to its credit, Photograph 51 puts them in play but never quite insists on the answers. Like the diligent, dogged Franklin, it insists on precision and declines to draw more conclusions than the data supports—and like her, it’s worth an admiring tip of the hat.