Review: A "City of Angels" from Heaven

Review: A "City of Angels" from Heaven

Eloise Baxter-Moss

  • OnStage North Carolina Critic

“City of Angels” stormed Broadway at the end of 1989.  With a scintillating score by the irreplaceable Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity), a riotous book by Larry Gelbart (TVs M*A*S*H), and deft lyrics by first-timer, David Zippel, the musical garnered 11 Tony Award nominations, six of which it won including Best Musical, Score and Book.  This brilliantly constructed musical ran for over three years and I was fortunate enough to see it several times.

Set in Hollywood in the late 1940s, the plot concerns a writer wrestling his popular detective novel into a screenplay, and the movie it gradually becomes.  The nerdy author, Stine, is represented in the screenplay by his alter ego, the tough and suave private eye, Stone.  The ingenious concept has the movie scenes presented in the style of a hard-boiled, black-and-white film noir, while the real-life scenes are presented in candied Technicolor.  Other than the writer and the gumshoe he has created, the principal cast members double as characters in both the "real" world and as their fictive counterparts in the “reel” world.  

The musical opens with a scene from the screenplay-in-progress.  Stone lies on a hospital gurney and flashes back to a week earlier when an alluring, wealthy woman, Alaura Kingsley, comes to him seeking his services in finding her missing stepdaughter, the heiress Mallory (Caitlin Becka, delicious).  He is both suspect of and attracted to the seductive woman (“Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever.”).  But needing the work, he decides to take on the case.  Cut to Stine at his typewriter, churning out the scene we’ve just seen from his emerging screenplay.  While his wife, Gabby (the expert Kendra Gohering-Garret), would prefer he stick to novels, Stine is determined to break into the Hollywood big-time without selling out his authorial integrity.  The meta interplay between reality and fiction is established early on when the real-life Gabby and Stone’s fictive secretary, Oolie (a wry Heather Setzler) commiserate about their respective men in the delightfully derisive "What You Don't Know About Women."

Mr. Gelbart’s crafty book – possibly the most sidesplitting ever written for a musical – cashes in on all of the trapping you would expect from the genre that he is both spoofing and recreating: murder, deception, betrayal, suspense and, of course, sex.  A great part of the fun is watching the actors flip-flop between the worlds of the two stories, the characters in Stine’s novel having been largely based upon the people in his life.  A highlight comes with the first act closer.  Stone, who has become increasingly resentful of being controlled by his creator, squares off with Stine in “You’re Nothing Without Me.”  Mr. Zippel’s lyrics, smart and clever throughout, are especially captivating in this powerhouse number.  

Stine to Stone: “I tell you, you’re out of my mind!”

Director Ray Kennedy has done Herculean work mounting this very tricky show.  (He is ably assisted by his frequent assistant director, Jason Aycock, also playing smooth radio singer, Jimmy Powers.)  The first-rate cast is headed by Sam Robison as Stine and Ken Griggs as Stone.  Both forceful singers, Mr. Robison is irrepressible as the harried writer gradually losing control of his own creation at the hands of egomaniacal producer, Buddy Fidler (the towering, hilarious Justin Smith).  Mr. Griggs brings just the right edge of sexy weariness to the tough ex-cop eking out a living as a reluctant private investigator.  Shannon Playl scores high marks as both the wily siren who hires Stone and as the conniving movie star married to the film’s producer, who is playing Alaura in the picture.  Ms. Setzler is splendid in the dual roles of both Stine’s and Stone’s loyal Girl Friday, essentially serving as a doormat to each of them.  Her sardonic “You Can Always Count On Me,” in which she flips between the two characters, is a vocal highlight.  Ms. Gohering-Garret, also essaying the role of Stone’s lover, nightclub singer, Bobbi, breathes tremendous mock passion into “With Every Breath I Take” with exquisite vocal styling.  Ms. Becka knows exactly how to put across the torrid “Lost and Found” while clad in only a sheet, which she navigates to a sensual fare-thee-well.  A sensational quartet of singers – George Domby, Lauren Mazzola, Emilia Torello and Terrill Williams – are occasionally deployed as Mr. Aycock’s backup singers to comment upon the action.  I would be remiss not to mention David Autry, Bill Meyer, Michael King, Marlon Ramos and Eric Johann, all of whom bring vivid life to supporting roles.

Terry Collins’ scenic design allows the production to move cinematically, as it must, from scene to scene.  He smartly employs hanging panels, looking like strips of film stock, that track across the stage to conceal and reveal scenes.  Unfortunately, they are most unattractive, looking as if Hefty Bags were incorporated into the design.  Selina Harvey’s stylish period costumes are outstanding, effectively reflecting the specific worlds of the characters in both stories.  Light designer, Dallas LaFon, does an artful job of keeping the two worlds of the conjoined stories separate and distinct.  Music director Lorene Walsh and her swinging band pump out the jazzy score with aplomb, assisted by the accomplished sound design of John Deveaux.  Special mention to Sarah Holcomb for her spot-on hair and makeup design.

This musical has sometimes been accused of being hard to follow; not this time.  Mr. Kennedy’s fluid staging assures that you always know exactly where you are, whether in reality or within the screenplay.  Yes, the evocative dialogue and lyrics come fast and furiously and the audience needs to pay attention.  However, with this engaging production of “City of Angels,” that effort is well rewarded.

“City of Angels” runs through September 11 at Thalian Hall in Wilmington, NC.

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