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'City of Angels' is summer fare for the sophisticated set


Family musicals abound in the summer. This year, though, the Marriott Theatre has put Ariel, Belle, "Godspell" and all those other vehicles for smiley, post-collegiate ingenues on ice and is dispensing instead some adult performers in adult entertainment, a show that plays with the hard-boiled Hollywood of 1940s detective noir, and does so with at least a modicum of the seductive wit you can't easily find at your neighborhood pier or theme park.

The show in question is "City of Angels," long one of my favorite musicals of the 1980s, not least for its sexy David Zippel and Cy Coleman score of siren-fueled ballads like "Lost and Found," "With Every Breath I Take" and, in a classic example of a perfect song for the best-pal gal who never gets her guy, "You Can Always Count On Me." But we "City of Angels" fans — and, for the record, we don't get to see the object of our affection very much — are just as fond of the plethora of droll lines in its potboiler of a book about a writer (natch) who creates a cynical antihero of a private eye who starts to resent his own creator calling the shots.

These days, when you call a musical funny you risk bringing to mind the kind of silly, self-aware spoofery you'd find in "A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder" or "Something Rotten." Or, god and James M. Barrie help us all, "Finding Neverland." That's not what I mean.

"City of Angels" is certainly meta quality — it probes the complexity of writers' relationships with characters who dominate and often eclipse them. Indeed, it's actually two shows in one — a show in color, wherein Stine (Rod Thomas) tries to fend off an interfering Hollywood boss (played by Gene Weygandt) and pen a screenplay of which he can be proud; and a show in black-and-white, wherein the gumshoe detective Stone (Kevin Earley) is hired by the married siren Alaura Kingsley (Summer Naomi Smart) to find her missing step-daughter, Mallory (Erin McGrath), a girl whom Stone ends up very much wanting to find for reasons of his own. Everyone except the two male leads appears in both shows at once, usually with one character reflecting the other, as with Danni Smith's clever fusion of Bobbi and Gabby, the doormat of both yarns.

But for its formative clever stuff, "City of Angels" actually has the epitome of an old-school book by Larry Gelbart and lines that don't go for easy laughs but more the slow burn of actual comedic sophistication. It's certainly not politically correct by 2015 standards, but it's droll. "Only the floor," goes one typical line, "kept her legs from going on forever." Or howzabout this classic: "I knew if we all met in one place, someone's tongue might come off its roller."

The wit of the book and the jazzy coolness of the score combine best in the signature back-and-forth riposte, "You're Nothing Without Me," which states the piece's main argument.

...How is Bowling's new production? Not bad at all. As with his staging of "The King and I," he knows how to use this in-the-round space in fresh ways, and "City of Angels" actually works very well in this space, since it allows you to keep moving the dividing line of the twin tales, and yet keep everything circuitously connected. 

...But the performers generally are strong and this show is always worth seeing. Plus, there's a knockout turn from McGrath, an actress, apparently lost in New York, who fires up the room like crazy and needs to get herself found a whole lot more around here.