Jim Kenney Made a Cameo in a High School Musical

Why the mayor took a turn in the spotlight in St. Joe's Prep's production of the musical comedy Curtains — and how he did.

Jim Kenney rehearses at St. Joe's Prep. Photo | Jared Brey.

Jim Kenney rehearses with Colin Coder at St. Joe’s Prep. Photo | Jared Brey.

Seated in the dark back row of a theater during the climactic scene of Curtains, a comedy musical murder mystery put on by St. Joe’s Prep, Mayor Jim Kenney leaned forward and rested his chin across his arms on the empty seat in front of him.

It was Saturday afternoon. Kenney had arrived toward the end of the first act. He was scheduled to give the student actors a pep talk during the intermission and make a cameo at the beginning of the second act. With those tasks behind him, he was just enjoying the show.

Curtains is sort of like a lighthearted version of Phantom of the Opera, in that its characters are putting on a stage production while an unknown killer keeps gumming up the works. The play-within-the-play, in this case, is called Robbin’ Hood. Robbin’ Hood — think Oklahoma, but in Kansas — is set in the old-timey Midwest, while Curtains is set in Boston in the late 1950s.

Jim Kenney rehearses with Chris Phillips at St. Joe's Prep. Photo by Jared Brey.

Jim Kenney rehearses with Chris Phillips at St. Joe’s Prep. Photo | Jared Brey.

The central conceit of the show is that a cast of big-time Broadway actors are working for peanuts on a small-time production in Boston, because they’ve been blackmailed by the show’s producers. (The theory being that every stage actor in the fifties had some sexual baggage that he or she didn’t want revealed.) After a dreadful performance of Robbin’ Hood on opening night, with a particularly bad showing by the prima donna lead actress, the show is panned in the press. The Boston Globe prints an especially critical review, setting up an important theme: Journalists are shitheels who get off on taking shots at other people.

The leading lady is murdered at the end of the first performance. Boston PD detective Lieutenant Frank Cioffi (played with bravado by St. Joe’s Prep senior Tom Koenig, who has real star power) is brought in to investigate the killing. Everyone’s a suspect. Hijinks ensue.

So during the intermission, Kenney dons a trenchcoat and fedora and does a little rehearsal with the actors in a classroom offstage. He plays Detective Jim Kenney (“the real JFK”), a hard-nosed gumshoe with no tolerance for shenanigans. He gets huge laughs in the classroom for his accent, which is equal parts Bostonian and Irish, and he says a few words to the cast. He tells them to own the Jesuit mission, to “be a person for other people.” He says the most talented people he’s ever encountered were actors on a Broadway stage. He’s a big fan of musicals, he says. Serious drama, not so much.

“Congratulations on your choice of application,” he says. “I hope you’ll be able to feed yourself with it at some point.”

The students then filter out, each one shaking the mayor’s hand. A few reporters are tenaciously snapping pictures of all of this, and when all the students have left the room, Kenney turns to director Tony Braithwaite and says, “The press is a real pain in the ass, aren’t they?”

Kenney, whose face is perpetually unicycling the high wire between laughter and tears, probably would have been good in amateur theater. He once told Philly Mag that not joining the Cape and Sword Drama Society at St. Joe’s was one of his biggest regrets. Some folks at St. Joe’s read about that, which is why they invited the mayor, who graduated from the school in 1976, to make a cameo in Curtains.

He played the brief scene with panache, even ad-libbing a couple lines. Detective Jim Kenney said that he wouldn’t tolerate crime in Boston, and that if anyone tried to pull any funny business, they’d have to worry about a trip to the mayor’s office as much as time in jail. (At almost the same moment that that scene was taking place, Philly.com reported, a woman was shot five times in Kensington, four miles northeast of St. Joe’s.) “Behave,” he told them, going off script while walking off stage.

Later, in the back row, he chortled at the jokes and applauded after the songs. After the final curtain, he stood to be recognized along with other St. Joe’s alumni. He said he was happy his parents sent him to that school. The cast and crew lined up to shake his hand on his way out the door.

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From left: Tom Koenig, Tony Braithwaite, Jim Kenney, Chris Phillips. Photo by Jared Brey.

From left: Tom Koenig, Tony Braithwaite, Jim Kenney, Chris Phillips. Photo | Jared Brey.