Monday, November 7, 2011

Musical Noir: City of Angels

Burke Moses (center) stars in "City of Angels" at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam

City of Angels is one of the smartest and most literate of modern musicals, though on Broadway in 1990 the production values upstaged Larry Gelbart’s book and the Cy Coleman-David Zippel songs. The show, which Michael Blakemore directed, was such an expensive-looking commodity that it came across as smug, a kind of exclusive club for well-heeled Westchester and Long Island theatergoers. I admired the performances, especially of the two leading men, Gregg Edelman and James Naughton, but it wasn’t until I saw it in a physically pared-down community-theatre edition a few years later that the virtues of the play and the score shone through. At the intimate Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, where it’s currently being mounted with the loving care typical of this venue, you can revel in those virtues.

The musical is a film noir parody with a metaliterary/metacinematic kick, set in the late 1940s, when noir was king. Stine (D.B. Bonds), author of a successful series of L.A.-set hard-boiled detective novels, has been hired to adapt one of them for the movies. So he leaves his wife Gabby (Laurie Wells) in New York and moves temporarily to the city he’s been writing about. At first he’s delighted with the assignment and warms to the encouragement of the producer-director, Buddy Fidler (Jay Russell), as well as to his uncensored criticism, sure that he can take anything Buddy dishes out and respond by improving the script. His optimism is a typical first reaction of east-coast writers adrift in Hollywood in the big-studio era who figured they’d struck gold and only afterwards realized they’d signed away their integrity. It takes a little while for Stine to work out that Fidler is a megalomaniac whose suggestions are non-negotiable and who expects Stine to pander to the audience. (The writer seems a little naïve about the demands of the Production Code regarding language and depictions of sexual relationships; it’s not as though he’s never seen a movie before.) Stine is the musical’s hero but he isn’t a saint; he has a wandering eye. During his Hollywood sojourn he beds Buddy’s secretary, Donna (Nancy Anderson) – not the first time he’s cheated on Gabby, and she catches on.

Burke Moses (black and white) and D.B. Bonds (color)

What makes the show so ingenious is that Gelbart’s book alternates scenes from Stine’s west-coast sojourn with scenes from his screenplay, where except for Stone (Burke Moses), the hard-bitten private-eye protagonist, all the main characters are played by the actors from the Hollywood story. Gabby shows up again as Bobbi, the nightclub singer who broke Stone’s heart by sleeping with Buddy’s alter ego, producer Irwin S. Irving; the violence that resulted when Stone found them in bed together resulted in his being thrown out of the LAPD and having to put out a shingle as a shamus. Fidler’s actress wife Carla (Liz Pearce), who’s two-timing him with a crooner named Jimmy Powers (Jeffrey David Sears), doubles as Alaura Kingsley, who hires Stone to find her stepdaughter Mallory (Kathleen Rooney) – a double for the ambitious starlet Buddy has cast as Mallory, Avril Raines. Just like Buddy, Stone has a loyal, warm-hearted tough-dame secretary named Oolie. The intercutting itself is cinematic, of course, and in Darko Tresnjak’s production the scenic and costume designers (David P. Gordon and Tracy Christensen, respectively) underscore the parallels by shifting into a black-and-white palette for the movie-within-the-play scenes. This isn’t an original idea for a play set in Hollywood during the big-studio period (I’ve seen it done in productions of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime), but it always works. And Gordon’s double-tiered set, with its moving rectangular segments that replicate the feel of movie sets, brilliantly accommodates the demands of the play, which contains forty scenes spread across twenty-four individual locations. (John Lasiter lights it expertly.) Once again I marveled at the Goodspeed’s ability to stage large-scale musicals on its compact stage. Tresnjak makes particularly good use of a center-stage balcony, where Coleman’s choral stand-ins, The Angel City Four (Mick Bleyer, Adam West Hemming, Vanessa Parvin and Sierra Rein), scat-sing the overture and back Powers. At one point Stone sits at the edge of it, dangles his legs, and executes a flip onto the stage. Only during Jennifer Paulson Lee’s noir ballets does the stage feel at all restricted.

Liz Pearce and Burke Moses
Gelbart riffs on the most famous of the forties film noirs – The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity – and Jimmy Powers is a burlesque of Dick Powell, the apple-cheeked tenor from the Busby Berkeley musicals who played Raymond Chandler’s detective Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely. Colerman’s jazz-infused music, which came at the end of his songwriting career, is easily his best, and he and the much-younger lyricist Zippel are an inspired combination. The song that most people who see the show are likely to remember is the first-act finale, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” a duet for Stine and Stone that’s set up by the hilarious moment when, as we see some idiotic changes Buddy has made in Stine’s script, Stone pauses in the middle of the action and turns to Stine in bafflement and disdain. In this production, it’s a marvelous deadpan moment when the character implicitly breaks out of camera space (the equivalent of breaking the fourth wall in a play); it calls to mind the one in Woody Allen’s great The Purple Rose of Cairo when the hero (Jeff Daniels) of the comedy Mia Farrow has been watching over and over again at her local movie house looks through the screen straight at her and asks her how many times she’s sat through the picture. In “You’re Nothing Without Me,” the private eye trumpets his macho superiority to the writer who’s caving to Hollywood pressures (“You are so thick / You eat, breathe, sleep fiction / I’m your meal ticket / Knee deep in cheap fiction”) and Stine reminds Stone who invented him (that’s he’s “one speck of lint that fell out / The last time that I picked my brain”). Zippel loves interior rhymes (“Let’s deal with the issue / You wish you were me,” the two men sing together in the last refrain) and flamboyantly clever ones that recall Porter, Hart and Ira Gershwin, like “If you’re not celibate / We could raise hell a bit” in Mallory’s come-on number, “Lost and Found.” (When he wrote Mallory, one of the mother-daughter femme fatales in the plot, Gelbart was thinking of Martha Vickers as Lauren Bacall’s oversexed kid sister in The Big Sleep, though he’s amped up her IQ.) I must say it’s hard to pick a favorite in this score. “You’re Nothing Without Me” and “It Needs Work” (Gabby’s musical response to Stine’s explanation when she discovers he’s slept with Donna) are the most dazzling lyrically. “With Every Breath I Take” (Bobbi) and “Stay with Me” (Jimmy’s signature number) are the most melodic. “Funny,” Stine’s eleven-o’clock number, is the most dramatically effective.

“Funny” is also the highlight of Tresnjak’s production. Bonds has a spectacular vocal instrument; his acting is perfectly adequate, but when he sings he’s a star, and this song, brief as it is (about two minutes), is a showcase for a dramatic singer. Moses is also stronger as a singer than as an actor, though he has the right heavy-lidded, squashed-faced look for Stone. The women are splendid, all four of them, but especially Anderson and Wells, who have the best roles (and the best songs). Sears brings a parodist’s wit to the slight role of Jimmy Powers, and as Officer Muñoz, who harbors a grudge against Stone from their time together on the beat, Danny Bolero goes to town with his scene-stealing revenge tango, “All You Have to Do Is Wait.” The only performer who seems inadequate is Russell as Buddy: his line delivery is choppy and relentless. Otherwise this City of Angels does complete justice to the marvelous material.

Gelbart couldn’t figure out how to end the show. In his finale the writer and the private dick combine forces to defeat Buddy (and Oolie, who unaccountably turns into a bad guy shortly before the final curtain) and Stine gets a happy romantic ending that he hasn’t merited. And the logistics of the ending are indecipherable. Nonetheless it’s a first-rate musical, and if you’re anywhere in the vicinity you don’t want to miss it in this gleaming, supremely entertaining production.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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