Yesterday we ran a piece that looked at some of the key themes of film noir. Today we post a piece Steve Vineberg wrote for Critics at Large about a musical tribute to the genre.
|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|
“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.
- originally published on November 7, 2011 in Critics at Large.