The Lyric Stage Company’s entertaining production of this Tony-winner for best musical, book, and score hits most of the right noirish notes.
City of Angels. Music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel. Book by Larry Gelbart. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Music director, Catherine Stornetta. Scenic design, Matt Whiton. Choregraphy & musical staging by Rachel Bertone. Produced by the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon Street, 2nd floor, Boston, MA, through May 2.
By Evelyn Rosenthal
The 1980s saw a number of movie send-ups of film noir, from Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) to Roger Zemeckis’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), and a dark comedy about playwrights and novelists who can’t hack it as Hollywood hacks, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (released in 1991, but written in 1989). In (apparently) the spirit of the ’80s, master comedy writer Larry Gelbart (TV’s M*A*S*H, Tootsie, Oh, God!), veteran composer Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Barnum), and crack lyricist David Zippel concocted an ingeniously structured musical spin on both themes, the witty, jazzy City of Angels. Just over 25 years later, Spiro Veloudos and the Lyric Stage Company have mounted an entertaining production of this Tony-winner for best musical, book, and score that hits most of the right noirish notes.
Stine, a New York writer, has come to Hollywood with his wife, Gabby, to turn his popular detective novel into a screenplay for producer/director Buddy Fidler, who can’t keep his hands off the script. The film, City of Angels, features Stine’s ex-cop gumshoe Stone, a tough guy with a past in the Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade mold. Against the better judgment of his adoring secretary, Oolie, Stone is hired by the femme fatale Alaura Kingsley to find her missing stepdaughter Mallory. Stone had left the force after killing a studio mogul he found in bed with the now-lost love of his life, the nightclub singer Bobbi. His ex-partner, Muñoz, is furious that Stone got away with murder and keeps tabs on him, hoping to catch him in a crime. So far, so noir.
The movie unfolds as Stine pecks away in his hotel room. In a cunning approximation of the creative process, at times a scene will stop and the characters will “rewind” and replay it with changes, as we hear Stine typing in the background. We quickly realize that, like many writers, Stine has based the characters partly on people in his life, played by the same actors: Jennifer Ellis is Bobbi and Gabby; J. T. Turner is the studio mogul, Irwin S. Irving, and Buddy; Leigh Barrett is Oolie and Donna, Buddy’s secretary; Samantha Richert is Alaura Kingsley and Buddy’s wife, Carla; Meghan LaFlam is Mallory and the starlet Avril, who hopes to play her in the movie. Only Stine (Phil Tayler) and Stone (Ed Hoopman) are not doubled.
With two parallel plotlines, nearly 40 characters played by 17 actors, and many scene changes in quick succession, City of Angels is a considerable challenge to stage, especially in smaller spaces. The Lyric overcomes some of these obstacles better than others. An effect in the original script — lighting and designing the movie scenes in black and white and the Hollywood scenes in color — keeps the distinction between the two worlds clear, and the Lyric pulls this pairing off subtly and effectively. The action plays out on two levels—Stine and Buddy spar about screenplay changes over the phone from separate quarters above the stage, and Stone and his fellow characters enact the film below, though they cross planes from time to time. But the numerous shifts between the Hollywood and movie worlds require a hyperactive set in order to represent multiple spaces—offices, apartments, a warehouse, a solarium in a mansion, a patio, hotel rooms, bedrooms. Lots of bedrooms. At times, in the somewhat confined Lyric stage space, the multiple scene changes slowed down the action, throwing the pacing off.
The show is packed with sharp comedy in both the dialogue and in the catchy, well-crafted songs rooted in 1940s blues and jazz. In their saucy duet “The Tennis Song,” Stone (Hoopman) and Alaura (Richert) steam up the stage as they volley double entendres. Another duo, Gabby (Ellis) and Oolie (Barrett), bemoan the cluelessness of their men in “What You Don’t Know About Women.” The two acquit themselves well in the number, but it’s hard to take your eyes—and ears—off Barrett, there and in every scene and song that features her, especially in the rousing blues “You Can Always Count on Me.” She’s funny and heartbreaking as Oolie and Donna, nailing both characterizations—the zingy Girl Friday repartee, the one-sided love, the jaded “other woman.”
As Stine, Tayler sings well and gives off the right air of callowness, though his performance is a bit subdued, especially compared with his strong turn as Toby in the Lyric’s recent Sweeney Todd. Ellis’s Gabby numbers are more convincing than Bobbi’s nightclub number, “With Every Breath I Take,” a gorgeous song that here lacks torchy punch. Hoopman shines as Stone, equally adept at delivering wisecracks, voice-over narration, and songs in his strong baritone. And, in a number that’s slightly out-of-character for the hard-boiled movie plot, Tony Castellanos stops the show as Muñoz celebrates Stone’s arrest with the calypso-ish “All Ya Have to Do Is Wait,” complete with conga line. Though sillier and more physically comic than most of the numbers, it’s nicely choreographed and goes over big.
The 1940s musical flavor is well served by the excellent six-piece band, and by the close harmony of the Angel City 4 (Sarah Kornfeld, Elise Arsenault, Andrew Tung, Brandon Milardo), the quartet who back up crooner Jimmy Powers (Davron Monroe); think Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross or Manhattan Transfer. They’re particularly effective in the number “Everybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere,” where they join Stone to search for Mallory, in front of a projection of a moving montage of Los Angeles at night (a nice visual effect).
Unlike most characters in the film noirs the show’s creators are riffing on, Stine gets the benefit of a happy Hollywood ending—a wish-fulfilling gift, perhaps, from his creator, Hollywood writer Gelbart. And the audience for this City of Angels gets an evening of laughs, enjoyable music, and some fine performances.
Evelyn Rosenthal is the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She is also a professional singer, specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, and has taught English and composition at Massachusetts community colleges. She writes about musical theater, books, and music for the Arts Fuse.