City of Angels
This non-dancing, Tony-winning, cinematic musical by the terrific trio of jazz composer Cy Coleman, bookwriter Larry Gelbart and lyricist David Zippel brilliantly lampoons Hollywood stereotypes and censorship. It’s a complicated amalgam, skewering the hypocrisy but going soft on the sentiment. City of Angels contrasts a young writer’s film-noir screenplay (“the reality of fiction”) with the too-true 1940s denizens who threaten his vision. Gelbart’s parody of gum-popping, wisecracking Raymond Chandler is matched by Coleman’s stylized score. (“You’re Nothing Without Me” is a stunning power ballad.) Of course, this has to happen in the title town, “a pretty girl with the clap.” A cesspool of corruption, City of Angels is a split-stage show (all the more daunting given Marriott Theatre’s arena configuration), with fiction and fact converging and overlapping too close for comfort. But it’s also bipolar as it depicts a treacherous world ready to turn a New York idealist into yesterday’s headlines.
Dauntingly clever and never condescending to the genre’s hard-boiled L.A. stereotypes, it’s cunningly costumed by Nancy Missimi and choreographed by Tommy Rapley. Best of all, Nick Bowling’s clear and present staging perfectly distinguishes the black-and-white screenplay from the Technicolor “reality.” (Jesse Klug’s lighting helps a lot too.) The jumpy pacing–25 locations in 40 scenes and rapid costume changes–could easily trip up the already dense plotting of this 170-minute confection. Bowling keeps total control of the two-way traffic. The musical is essentially an exercise in style, the alternately rhapsodic and skeptical mindset of the post-war disillusionment that fed film noir. The result: a triumph of wicked wit and a showcase for stunning performances.
Deliberately dazzling with its contradictory mix of déjà vu flashbacks, the musical contains two plots–“real” and “reel”–as life imitates art and art takes swipes at its source. The “silver screen” characters have real-life counterparts played by the same performers. The full-color “actual” story focuses on novelist turned screen hack Stine (Rod Thomas), his troubled marriage, friction with a word-hating, “casting couch” director and self-censoring studio, and driven starlets whose resume is mostly horizontal.
Mired in a maddening tangle of blackmail, double-talking, doubles entendres (“The Tennis Song”), and unexplainably dead bodies, Stine’s monochromatic, fictional alter ego/surrogate is Stone (Kevin Earley). This rather public “private eye” must solve the apparent kidnaping of Mallory, stepdaughter (Erin McGrath) of femme fatale Alaura (Summer Naomi Smart, period perfect). Helping and hindering the gumshoe dick is a greedy and horny film producer (Gene Weygandt) and Stone’s ambitious and loyal secretary (Meghan Murphy) whose true-life parallel is a frustrated author and a rather glum “girl Friday.”
Inevitably–this is Tinsel Town–the celluloid and concrete worlds interpenetrate like a Woody Allen movie until, in a bust of Pirandello-like topsyturvydom, Stone rides to Stine’s rescue to create a happy Hollywood ending that works in and for both worlds. You could go wrong trying to keep “straight” the fantasy and factual sides of this “double feature.” You could also miss the point: As the similarly-minded Chicago put it, it’s just showbiz, “razzle dazzle,” flimflam, smoke and mirrors and, especially, La La Land lechery and lies.
Oddly, the truth-telling here comes from the songs. Whatever the “city of devils” situations, the emotions built into words and notes ring true. You feel it in Murphy’s anthem of loyalty “You Can Always Count on Me,” McGrath’s forlorn “Lost and Found,” Thomas’s bitter ballad “Funny,” and Earley’s cut-the-crap “Ev’rybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere,” accompanied by the be-bop Angel City 4 (Elizabeth Lanza, Patrick Lane, Michael Mahler and Cassie Slater).
Film noir never wanted to be loved by its fans–cynicism and confidence can’t combine. It encourages, even thrives on, distrust. So it makes perfect sense that City of Angels two-times its audience as much as its characters. But when we know we’re being fooled, we become willing co-conspirators in some delicious double dealing.