“City of Angels” at Goodspeed Musicals
For those of us who like brain games -- puzzles, Scrabble, Sudoku -- “City of Angels” is a delight. Never mind that we don’t much care what happens to the characters. It’s the clever concept which counts.
Larry Gelbart’s book for this musical is indeed intriguing. It involves a play within a play. Stine, the writer, has been wooed to Hollywood (for money, of course) to turn one of his popular private-eye novels into a movie script. Thus we have the struggling writer (in full technicolor) and the detective Stone, his creation (in black-and-white film). Each one’s life is filled with trauma -- infidelities, seductions, past loves, career challenges -- and, in the case of Stine’s Stone, thugs, beatings, murders.
The piece, to do it credit, is a first-class spoof of the film noir genre -- and of Hollywood itself. No wonder one cannot warm to its characters. Satire, at its best, is never fuzzy warm.
But the format is indeed clever. And Director Darko Tresnjak meets the challenge head on -- but, in fact, gets carried away. So much is happening on stage -- in the real and the reel world -- that it is impossible to follow the story line of Stine’s film. In a past Broadway production, this was handled neatly by keeping each hero on his side of the stage. But Tresnjak has every one crossing lines.
At the same time, his relentless non-stop pace provides excitement, played out against David P. Gordon’s multi-level Venetian-blinded stage set. He controls his cast beautifully. When Stine, for example, pauses in thought, his characters freeze. And when he rewrites lines, his characters go into reverse mode. It is an admirable, perfectly-executed, exercise.
Yet there are, surprisingly, unexpected moments of warmth. Nancy Anderson, who plays the lovelorn, much-abused secretary/assistant in both worlds puts humanity into both roles. And Burke Moses, as the tough private detective, reveals a vulnerability behind his oafishness. You can’t help caring about the guy. Others are sharp as nails, rightly so for their roles—Liz Pierce as the blonde seductress, Josh Powell as the resident Latino, Kathleen Rooney as the spoiled daughter of the millionaire. Only Jay Russell, playing the feckless Hollywood director/producer (in both worlds) is clearly miscast. It seems too heavy a burden for his slim shoulders.
Finally, a word of praise for David Zippel’s wonderfully clever lyrics, and for Cy Coleman’s music, which capture the essence of the show in their tunes, but especially in the memorable “I’m Nothing Without You.”
Whatever the drawbacks of Tresnjak’s unique approach, “City of Angels” is a show worth seeing.
This review also appears in nytheaterscene.com