City of Angels
By David A. Rosenberg
At Goodspeed, Darko Tresnjak's fuzzy direction makes a convoluted plot murkier than a swamp. He also doesn’t seem comfortable with lines like, “She had the kind of face you can hang a dream on, and a body that made Venus de Milo look all thumbs.”
That last might make you think you’re in the land of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Think again. We’re actually in Larry Gelbart territory. The jokester who penned “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “M*A*S*H” and “Tootsie” is the librettist for the shrewd, smart “City of Angels,” a spoof of film noir.
You need to know the basics. Stine is writing a screenplay from his novel about a private detective and the dames and crooks he encounters while trying to find a missing person. As he writes, we see scenes enacted, featuring his alter ego, Stone, as if they were on film.
So, there’s Stine and reality in color, Stone and fantasy in black and white. Backed by Cy Coleman’s jazz-infused music and David Zippel’s zippy lyrics, the show was a surprise 1989 Broadway hit, winning several Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Performance by an Actor for Weston’s James Naughton.
Naughton’s role is here taken by Burke Moses, in a sly performance that may remind you of a winking Chester Morris, whom he resembles. (Remember Chester Morris?) Stone has a loyal secretary, Oolie, who secretly loves him and a socialite client, Alaura, who hires him to find her missing (is she?) step-daughter.
Complications ensue, made even more foggy because Stine keeps re-writing scenes, forcing the film characters to rewind both bodily and vocally. It’s a delightful gimmick.
Elsewhere, the evening is a tangle, particularly in its handling of Stine’s wife. It’s when reality and fantasy mix that the show reaches its most delicious moments. When Stone and Stine (an ardent D. B. Bonds) duet on the show’s memorable “You’re Nothing Without Me,” we get a glimpse of how delicious the evening could be.
To be sure, there are other pleasures. Watch the corpse’s exit, for instance. Revel in some of the performances, especially the incomparable Nancy Anderson as both real and fantasy secretaries. But try to endure Jay Russell’s intolerably charmless, over-the-top performance as an egocentric studio boss.
The production benefits enormously from David P. Gordon’s scenic design, John Lasiter’s lighting, Tracy Christensen’s costumes and Shawn Boyle’s projections. Together they delight the eye, as much as Coleman, Zippel and Gelbart delight the ear. If only the rest of the production were as adroit.