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Lavish curtain calls give audiences one last treat

| Monday, March 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Joan Marcus
Performers in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” at the Benedum Center appeared for their curtain call dressed in clever and eye-popping costumes not previously seen in the production.
Drew Yenchak
At the end of Mel Brooks' 'The Producers' the cast, here in a production by by the Playhouse Conservatory Theatre Company in October 2012, sings a special song, 'Goodbye,' to send the audience home at the end of the curtain call.
Pittsburgh Public Theater
Bellhops take pictures of the cast at the end of Pittsburgh Public Theater's 'The Royal Family' in 2010.
Joan Marcus
Mark Evans in 'The Book of Mormon.'

French fries and soft drinks aren't the only things that come super-sized.

If recent national touring shows are any indication, curtain calls are bigger and more lavish than ever.

Curtain calls have long been a familiar ending to live stage performances.

Pittsburgh Public Theater producing artistic director Ted Pappas defines them as “that explosion of gratitude from an audience … reserved for living, breathing actors bowing to the crowd after a live performance. It is also the final image of the production and its players that the audience takes home with them.”

But increasingly, it's no longer enough to bring out the cast in waves of ascending importance that climax with a parting of the group to make way for a final grand entrance by the show's star.

Directors at all levels seem to put more effort and attention into creating elaborate or clever curtain calls, most notably those for national touring musicals such as PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh national tours of “Green Day's American Idiot” and “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” that concluded with lavish numbers that resembled built-in encores.

“Green Day's American Idiot” at Heinz Hall featured the entire cast strumming guitars while singing a number not listed in the program — Green Day's “Time of Your Life.”

Performers in “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” at the Benedum Center appeared for their curtain call dressed in clever and eye-popping costumes not previously seen in the production.

The national tour of “The Book of Mormon,” which arrives here March 26, also has a lavish post-curtain call number, says Samantha Marie Ware, who plays Nabulungi in the show.

“It's like an encore number,” she says. “People are smart to stay.”

Some observers, such as Benedum Center operations manager Jacob Bacharach, suspect that is exactly what's intended.

“One of the reasons they have turned curtain calls into a production number is to keep people in their seats,” Bacharach says. His theory — and that of many others — is that an inventive and colorful number at the end of the curtain call keeps patrons in their seats rather than fleeing up the aisles toward the parking garage while the actors are still onstage.

Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera executive producer Van Kaplan disagrees.

He sees little difference between these encore performances and what “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” did more than 30 years ago with its 10-minute curtain call that offered a “Mega-Mix” recap of the show's songs.

Writer, lyricist and composer Mel Brooks may have taken it a step further in 2001 when he wrote “Goodbye,” a special song to send the audience home at the end of the curtain call for “The Producers.”

“I don't think it's anything new,” Kaplan says. “It's an opportunity to put a button on the evening whether it's with a special number or something written for the show. It gives the audience a moment to relive the joy and excitement of the show.”

You want to leave audiences cheering, says Pappas, who gives a lot of thought to creating curtain calls for shows he directs.

“I'm a big believer in beautifully designed curtain calls, replete with special music and orchestrations, unique lighting and even custom-made choreography,” Pappas says.

He's particularly proud of his curtain call for “The Royal Family” in 2010 that ended with the show's bellhop characters delivering opening-night bouquets to the cast's females each and every night, the full-cast Charleston number that completed the curtain call for “Broadway” in 2004 and the comedic chaos at the end of 2007's “The Comedy of Errors,” which climaxed this mistaken identity tale about twin servants and masters with the arrival of two sets of twin babies in double-wide baby buggies.

Other directors are happy to keep it simple.

When City Theatre artistic director Tracy Brigden is directing a play, she reserves the last 15 minutes of the technical dress rehearsal to stage the curtain call.

“It's more for the audience than the actors,” Brigden says. “I believe in letting it build to the person who was the centerpiece (of the play). … If it's a huge, spectacular role, (audiences) want to applaud for (that performer) by themselves.”

Kaplan says the mood or style of a play or musical also plays a part in creating curtain calls.

If the audience has just watched the Jets carry off Tony's dead body at the end of “West Side Story,” you wouldn't want to have the full cast breaking into a reprise of “America” during curtain call. But it might make more sense for a musical like “42nd Street” to end with all the performers tapping out one final chorus as the final curtain descends.

“It reminds (the departing audience) about the wonderful music and dance numbers they just saw,” Kaplan says.

Composer, arranger, pianist, music director and self-confessed band nerd Douglas Levine takes that impulse one step further. He not only stays until the curtain call ends, he sticks around through the exit music and applauds the musicians when they're done.

“It's your part of the performer-audience contract to applaud their efforts,” Levine says.

But there also can be too much of a good thing, Levine says. “If the show is good, a tastefully tricked-out curtain call feels like the cherry on top. And if the show isn't good — or too darned long — it feels like something else.”

Audiences, as well as directors, can over-do curtain calls, Kaplan says.

“I have memories of curtains going up and down as many as three and four times because the audience kept applauding,” Kaplan says. “I can't remember the last time the curtain came up and down like that so dramatically. In fact, there are now often no curtains.”

The curtains may be disappearing. But the curtain call is likely to continue, Pappas says.

“Curtain calls will never be outdated, any more than kissing will be,” Pappas says. “It's just another way of saying ‘I love you.' ”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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