Monday, June 22, 2015

"City of Angels" - Bringing Out the Big Guns

by Craig Gustafson

City of Angels, though flawed, is the best Broadway musical of the 1980s.  The book by Larry Gelbart (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, TV's Caesar's Hour and M*A*S*H) is witty and hilarious.  The 1940s style jazz music by Cy Coleman (Little Me, Sweet Charity) is vocally complex and a joy to listen to.  David Zippel's lyrics are spot on.

Rod Thomas as Stine, Kevin Earley as Stone

The story concerns Stine, a writer of Raymond Chandleresque novels about a hard-boiled detective named Stone, and his efforts to write a screenplay based on his latest novel.  A movie-struck Stine is initially oblivious to the Hollywood machinations and backstabbing that rival anything he could put in a book, and his willingness to compromise irritates his level-headed wife, Gabby.  Hard-nosed producer/director/editor/make-up expert/popcorn butterer Buddy Fidler hides his ruthlessness behind lavishly lathered smarm.  His secretary Donna, seemingly content to Know Her Place, has her own agenda.  Stine's story is presented in color.  But there's another story:

In black and white, we see a screenplay-within-a-play; scenes from Stine's screenplay, City of Angels, as he writes and rewrites it.  Private eye Stone embarks on a two-fisted, multiple-bed case of finding missing heiress Mallory Kingsley.  His uncompromising sense of morality sees him through the seedy alleys and corrupt mansions of Los Angeles.

Erin McGrath as Mallory, Kevin Earley as Stone

Stone and Stine are played by separate actors (I suspect a movie version would have one actor play both parts), but everyone else in Stine's Hollywood life doubles as a character in his screenplay.  Sometimes he uses people as inspiration.  Other times, he revenges himself on people who have hurt him by having rotten things happen to their corresponding characters.

The Marriott Theatre and director Nick Bowling have done an amazing job of staging this complex, very busy show in the round.  It flows smoothly and is vastly entertaining.  The biggest job, distinguishing between Color Hollywood and Black & White Screenplay, is handled beautifully.  Everybody in the screenplay wears black, white and gray -- the only colors not found anywhere in the Hollywood scenes, which are gaudy and garish.  The furniture, props and lighting all mesh with the concept.

Here's the best and most subtle thing about Bowling's direction: when actors are playing characters in the black & white screenplay, they are utterly sharp, ruthless and convincing.  When it comes time to shoot the film and the same actors are playing Hollywood people interpreting the screenplay, they're not as good reading lines that they just said ten minutes earlier.  That's brilliant.

Rod Thomas as Stine is terrific.  Get used to that word; I'll be using it a lot.  Sharp timing and a killer voice.  Kevin Earley as Stone is also terrific.  Completely nails the unflinching detective with a strong moral code and a broken heart.

Gene Weygandt as Buddy

Gene Weygandt is wonderfully horrible as two Hollywood producers: Buddy Fidler in color, Irwin S. Irving in black & white.  Irving is a sniveling coward; Fidler is anything but - his smiling but brusque exterior attempts to camouflage a ruthless dictator.

Kevin Earley as Stone, Danni Smith as Bobbi

Danni Smith as Stine's wife Gabby and Stone's love Bobbi is - yes - terrific.  Gabby is on the ball, successful and a straight arrow who is on to her husband's every move.  So in Stine's screenplay, Bobby is a pathetic, self-centered, cheating tramp (albeit with a great voice) who Isn't Worthy of Stone.  Smith nails both characterizations.  Her voice is a smoldering fuse of dynamite.

And speaking of dynamite...

Meghan Murphy as Donna

Oolie is Stone's secretary, a Right Broad and the hero's faithful sidekick.  Think Joan Blondell with Bette Midler's vocal power.  Donna is Buddy's secretary, and pretty much like Oolie.  Or is she?  If you need some kind of really a special reason to see City of Angels, feel free to use mine: I love this show, but the extra spur I needed was Meghan Murphy as Donna and Oolie.  After watching her mop the floor with everyone else onstage as the Acid Queen in The Who's Tommy, I had to see this production.  I need a new paragraph for this:

I've been an actor/director/audience member for all of my moderately long adult life.  Meghan Murphy gets the Pushmi-Pullyu Award for making me sing I've Never Seen Anything Like It(Doctor Dolittle [1967] reference.)  A problem with Oolie's (and Donna's) second act show-stopper, You Can Always Count on Me, is that it's a funny song, but it's interspersed with scenes, which breaks up the flow.  You keep going back to square one each time you start.  How do you build to a finish with a song like that?  For the final chorus, after dialogue, Murphy did something I literally have never seen before in my life.  Using only body language, Murphy wheeled herself around in a way that said, "Watch out, suckers, I'm about to blow!"  It was like watching a battleship spinning its guns around to fire.  And Murphy has the biggest guns around.  It was one of the most amazing moments of theatre I've ever experienced.  This one number was worth the price of the ticket.  The fact that the rest of the show was fabulous is icing on the cake.  To say that Murphy is a force of nature is to minimize her abilities.

Kevin Early as Stone, Summer Naomi Smart as Alaura

Summer Naomi Smart as Carla and Alaura; Erine McGrath as Mallory/Avril; Devin DeSantis as Jimmy Powers; Patrick Lane, Elizabeth Lanza, Michael Mahler and Cassie Slater as the scat-singing Angel City Four - all are (you guessed it) terrific.  Ryan T. Nelson's music direction was flawless.

Can I stop gushing long enough to talk about things I didn't like?  Of course I can.
There is an opening announcement, notification in the playbill and a frickin' scorecard shoved into the playbill, all making sure we know the premise of the show and that actors will be playing two or more parts in color and black & white.  In other words, "Hello, idiots."  The onstage delineation between the two worlds was completely clear without the idiot cards.  Of course, on the way out I was listening for audience reactions and I heard a couple of older patrons saying, "Could you follow it?" "No.  But it was good."  So - the majority of us can follow along without having it drummed into us, and the announcements did nothing for the ones who couldn't follow it anyway.

The ending blows; but that's Gelbart's fault, not the production's.  That's five minutes out of two and a half hours of musical heaven.  And it was really interesting that the director acknowledged that the ending blows, by virtue of an added line.

A number of lines and snippets of song were cut; I hope Bowling got permission for that.  A couple of bawdier gags had to be cut because there was no way to do them in the round; as it was, there was a moment when one character flashes another and had to get so close to the other actor that it seemed like imminent rape was to be added to minor sexual harassment.  But Carla has a line about dining that was needlessly censored.  That sucks.  If you're going to do the show, just do it.

Meghan Murphy as Oolie, Danni Smith as Gabby

Aside from those things, City of Angels is one of the best shows you'll see this year; if you see it; which you should.  Immediately.

City of Angels runs through August 2 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.  For tickets and information, go here:

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