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Villanova University President and Barrymore Award-Winner the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, Inaugurates New Topper Theatre with Curtains: A Musical Whodunnit

Courtsey John Shetron

VILLANOVA, Pa.—Villanova Theatre proudly presents Curtains: A Musical Whodunnit with music and lyrics by Kander & Ebb, directed by Villanova University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, March 31–April 10. This production will pull out all the stops as it christens the proscenium-style Topper Theatre in the new John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts. With its tuneful score, witty book and clever plot, Curtains blends Agatha Christie-like mystery with the spectacular song and dance of Golden Age musicals while playing every theatrical bell and whistle.   

This musical extravaganza marks the first production in the new 400-seat Topper Theatre since the completion of the Joan and John Mullen Center for the Performing Arts in 2019, as well as University president Father Peter Donohue’s return to directing for Villanova Theatre for the first time since 2012’s The Drowsy Chaperone. Eager to make use of all of the production and technological capabilities in the $60 million performing arts center, Father Donohue has encouraged designers to employ the enhanced resources of the facility’s new scenery and costume shops, as well as its full fly and rigging system, in order to create the world of Curtains and its winking, Western-themed show-within-a-show. The John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts and its crown jewel, the Topper Theatre, were funded by six gifts of $1 million or more, including two gifts of $20 million.

A love letter to the Golden Age of musical theatre, Curtains takes place in 1959, and the mysterious death of a Broadway-bound show’s leading lady makes everyone—onstage and backstage—a potential suspect. Enter Detective Frank Cioffi, a stagestruck gumshoe who sniffs out clues while donning tap shoes. The Rev. David Cregan, OSA, PhD, associate dean of Academic Affairs and Strategic Initiatives for the College of Professional Studies and longtime professor in the Department of Theatre, will shoulder the lead role of Cioffi, the resolute homicide detective determined to both solve the murder and rehabilitate the show in time for its Broadway opening. He is joined by a cast of current graduate and undergraduate students, alumni, faculty and staff, featuring campus minister Meghan Dietzler as starry-eyed ingénue Niki, and current graduate students Erin Coffman and Brian Jacko as the composer-lyricist duo whose shared professional and married lives are both on the rocks. 

Courtsey John Shetron

Curtains is the last complete musical by preeminent 20th-century composing duo John Kander and Fred Ebb, the musical minds behind mega-hits Cabaret and Chicago. This musical whodunnit had a long journey from conception to production, beginning in the 1990s with original book writer Peter Stone (1776, Titanic). Following the deaths of Stone and Ebb (in 2003 and 2004, respectively), songwriter and dramatist Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) joined Kander to complete the show, which finally reached Broadway in 2006. During their decades-long collaboration, Kander and Ebb were famously companionable and selfless collaborators, with Ebb noting that “we became a third person that I guess you could call Kander & Ebb” when writing together. This spirit of collaboration and joy is evident throughout Villanova Theatre’s latest production.

“It's been incredibly fun to return to the stage for the first time since 2012, and most especially to be able to direct the first musical in the spectacular new Topper Theatre,” said the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, Villanova University President and Curtains director. As department chair from 1992 to 2006, he annually directed musical theatre productions on campus, earning six Barrymore Award nominations and one Barrymore Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical from the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. Father Donohue last directed the Philadelphia premiere of the hit musical comedy The Drowsy Chaperone at Villanova Theatre in 2012, and Curtains is only the second musical he has directed since assuming the role of University President in 2006. Students, faculty, staff and audiences alike are excited to see his magic at work in the new performing arts center that will no doubt be remembered as a momentous accomplishment in his legacy.

Production dramaturg, second-year graduate student Nichola Ecker, is particularly excited about the way in which Curtains functions as a love letter to the theatre – with its smiling send-up of Golden Age musicals, its winking inside jokes for “show people,” and loads of joyful jazz hands from the ensemble. ”After almost two years of dark theatres and virtual performances, there is a palpable joy in performing this valentine to the Broadway of yesteryear,” Ecker says.

Courtsey John Shetron
Courtsey John Shetron

The Curtains set will be the first ever constructed for the Topper Theatre, which has not yet held live theatrical events. The ambitious design is being undertaken by Colin McIlvaine, a Barrymore-nominated, Philadelphia-based designer who holds an MFA from Temple University. The Villanova Theatre scenic shop, staffed by graduate assistant and undergraduate work-study students, is eagerly turning McIlvaine’s multitude of designs into reality. Keeping with Father Donohue’s vision of recreating the look of a 1950s Broadway extravaganza, McIlvaine’s design incorporates multiple drop curtains, moving wagons and two sets of footlights to create the effect of the audience seeing the stage from both the front and then the back.

Curtains costume designer, 30-plus-year Villanova Theatre veteran and Barrymore Award-winner Janus Stefanowicz, is more than up to the task of costuming the 20 cast members, who each don six to eight outfits throughout the show. Father Donohue’s directorial vision for the show—keeping as much as possible accurate to the 1950s—is realized in Stefanowicz’s designs. The designs involve building costumes using the many resources available to the costume shop, including new cricket and embroidery machines, and sourcing vintage outfits to create a uniformly mid-century look for all the actors. The four graduate costume assistants and many additional undergraduate costume work-study students are excited to work on a show of this size intended for a live audience after nearly two years of recorded performances.

Curtains will run from March 31 to April 10, 2022 in the Topper Theatre at the Joan and John Mullen Center for the Performing Arts. Speaker’s Night, immediately following the performance on April 7, will feature a Q&A session with director Father Peter Donohue, production dramaturg Nicholas Ecker and special guest speaker Theatre Department Chair and musical theatre scholar Valerie Joyce, PhD (see full biographical information below). 

Villanova Theatre is located on the Villanova University campus in the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts (at Lancaster and Ithan avenues). Performances will be held Thursdays–Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets run $26–$30, with discounts available for students, seniors, MA in Theatre alumni and groups. Tickets may be purchased online at or by calling the box office at 610-519-7474.  


The Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, Ph.D., became the 32nd president of Villanova University on June 1, 2006. As president, Father Donohue has worked together with students, faculty, staff, alumni and parents to strengthen the Villanova community and renew its commitment to the institution’s Catholic, Augustinian and educational mission. Father Donohue has been the central support and most vocal advocate for the building of the John and Joan Mullen Center for the Performing Arts, overseeing the project from its inception.

Born in Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Royal Oak, Mich., Father Donohue earned a BA with a concentration in Theatre and Communication Arts, from Villanova University in 1975 and was ordained an Augustinian priest in 1979. He holds an MA in Theatre from the Catholic University of America, a M.Div. from the Washington Theological Union, and a PhD in Theatre from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While pursuing his doctorate, Father Donohue taught theatre at the University of Illinois, where he received honors for outstanding teaching. He is a member of Phi Kappa Phi, the nation’s oldest, largest and most selective all-discipline honor society. Father Donohue is a tenured associate professor at Villanova who served as chair of the University’s Department of Theatre from 1992 to 2006. He annually directed musical theatre productions on campus, earning six Barrymore Award nominations and one Barrymore Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical from the Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia.


Valerie Joyce, PhD, has been directing, designing or performing on stage at Villanova Theatre for a quarter-century. Villanova credits include: The Revolutionists, SLAPHAPPY: A Covid-Era Commedia, Merrily We Roll Along, The Importance of Being Earnest, Intimate Apparel, Little Women, Translations, The Threepenny Opera, The Light in the Piazza, Carousel, Batboy: The Musical, Annie Get Your Gun, Cabaret and Talley’s Folly. Other credits include: The Meat Opera and Up Your Ante for the New York and Philadelphia International Fringe Festivals, and Thank You for Sharing with Amaryllis Theatre Company. Valerie has also worked as a professional costume designer for local and regional productions including Persistent Memory and Six Story Building (off-Broadway), The Real Thing (Arden Theatre Company), Moon for the Misbegotten (Venture Theatre), True West and Waiting for Godot (Lantern Theatre Company), Billy and Zelda (Opera Delaware), and The Comedy of Errors (Princeton Repertory), as well as many university productions. She has also written a one-woman show dramatizing the lost stories of African American women pre-emancipation, titled I Will Speak for Myself.


Kander and Ebb are undoubtedly one of the most well-known songwriting duos to ever write for Broadway, the minds behind shows like Cabaret and Chicago. Kander and Ebb first began composing for television and comical musical revues, with their song ““My Coloring Book” appearing on the Perry Como Show. Cabaret was their first smash success, appearing on Broadway in 1966. Their joint career spanned nearly 30 years, and their music lived on after Ebb’s death in 2004, with Curtains debuting in its final form on Broadway in 2006, and the musicals The Scottsboro Boys and The Visit utilizing their music. The pair wrote over 20 musicals together and composed some of the most well-known music of the 20th century, including hits like “New York, New York.”


Villanova Theatre is a community of artist-scholars committed to transforming hearts and minds through the visionary production of classical, modern and contemporary dramatic literature. Our work is fueled by the imaginative striving common to Villanova’s accomplished faculty, versatile staff and energetic graduate students. Together, we are devoted to creating a vibrant theatre enriched by and overflowing with the ideas explored in our classrooms. In all of our endeavors, we aim to share the dynamic experience of collaborative learning with our audiences in order to engage the intellect and stir the soul. As a facet of Villanova University, Villanova Theatre serves the campus community as well as thousands of theatre-goers from the Main Line and the Greater Philadelphia area.   


Since 1842, Villanova University’s Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition has been the cornerstone of an academic community in which students learn to think critically, act compassionately and succeed while serving others. There are more than 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students in the University's six colleges—the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering, the M. Louise Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Professional Studies and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Ranked among the nation’s top universities, Villanova supports its students’ intellectual growth and prepares them to become ethical leaders who create positive change everywhere life takes them. For more, visit