Sunday, October 23, 2011

Theater Review: City of Angels -- Goodspeed

D.B. Bonds, Jay Russell, Burke Moses and Nancy Anderson Photo ©2011Diane Sobolewski
Real, Reel Worlds Collide in Sophisticated Spoof of Hollywood Whodunnits
By Lauren Yarger
It was a Darko stormy night...

Darko Tresnjak, Hartford Stage's new artistic director, helms a stylish production of the complicated murder-mystery musical City of Angels for Goodspeed Musicals, starring Nancy Anderson, Burke Moses and a fabulous set designed by David P. Gordon.

She's not bad looking, the stage I mean, in that way beautiful women have of making us want to offer them a ride in our car, but knowing that all that steam will just pop the tires...

A shelf-lip stage above the action as well as a series of blinds that open to reveal other scenes with superb lighting by John Lasiter complete a picture that makes the story within a story within a story within a story complete with all the necessities for film noir:  narration from the private eye, false leads, flashbacks and lots of funny wisecracks.

The cast is like a group of old friends sitting around a crackling fire, sipping cognac because nothing but the best will do, knowing that the best part of the evening is still ahead...

Moses looks the part (think the Claude Rains, Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum type) and plays up Stone, the rough detective trying to solve a missing person case that turns into a murder. He charges $25 a day and 8 cents a mile, his secretary, Oolie (Anderson), reminds him when he is hired by Alaura Kingsley to find her missing stepdaughter, Mallory (Kathleen Rooney). What it takes the private eye a little while to figure out, though, is that he's actually a character in a screenplay being written by Stine (D.B. Bonds), who isn't happy that the producer/director of the film, Buddy Fidler (Jay Russell), keeps making changes and taking all the credit for the story.

The story has legs, long ones stretching down so long any detective would not be shamus to be called gumshoe....

The book by Larry Gelbart (of M*A*S*H fame) is really quite good. It's funny, very complicated and true to the film noir genre. The events in the "real" world play out against those of the "reel" world, with Anderson, Russell, Rooney, Pearce and others from the large cast playing dual roles. Tresnjak skillfully stages some great scenes: where the action in the screenplay rewinds as the writer erases, the entrance of thug Big Six (a riotous Jerry Gallagher), where characters from both worlds sing duets and a slow-motion fight scene (Ron Piretti, fight director). The fun is made complete by lighting that puts the current action in color and the movie in black and white with costumes (Tracy Christensen) following suit.

We can't run away from the badness ... we can't fight it. We must deal with the badness.... (OK, I borrowed that one from Michael O'Hara in the "The Lady from Shanghai" but it fits)....

The music by Cy Coleman, with lyrics by David Zippel is disappointing and doesn't belong in the play. Imagine, if you will, Lauren Bacall asking Humphrey Bogart if he knows how to whistle then jumping into a song-and-dance number about it. That's what happens here -- 10 times in the first act and seven times in the second act with Michael O'Flaherty conducting the orchestra and the cast performing Jennifer Paulson Lee's choreography. The Angel City 4 singers are played by Mick Bleyer, Vanessa Parvin, Sierra Rein and Adam West Hemming, all members of the 2010 Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) award-winning a capella group Marquee Five.

With the exception of one nicely staged number where couples dance at a night club to the sounds of an orchestra actually performing at the night club, however, the score is not memorable, disrupts the action, stretches the vocal abilities of several cast members who are stronger on acting than singing and pushes the running time to two hours and 45 minutes.

I know, those are harsh words for a critic to throw at a man, especially when he's walking out of your bedroom -- I mean ending a review -- (apologies to Philip Marlowe)....

It's worth sitting through all the music, though to see this savvy, extremely well staged production of a show not often produced because of its complex nature. City of Angels runs through Nov. 27 at the Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam. Curtains are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 pm, Thursday at 7:30 pm (with select performances at 2 pm), Friday at 8 pm, Saturday at 3 pm and 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm (with select performances at 6:30 pm). Tickets are available at 860-873-8668 or on-line at www.goodspeed.org.

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Lauren Yarger with playwright Alfred Uhry at the Mark Twain House. Photo: Jacques Lamarre)

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