Kathleen Watson and Danny Rothman. Photo by Bella Muccari.
BOTTOM LINE: Excellent musical, good production.
City of Angels is a musical in two complementary halves. One half is the story of Stine, a talented novelist writing his first screenplay for a major Hollywood studio; the other half is the story of Stone, the hard-boiled detective who is both Stine's prized creation and the movie's lead character. Many of the characters in Stine's life - his wife, his mistress, his producer - have counterparts in the movie he is writing; suitably enough, except for Stine and Stone, each actor plays two roles, one in each half. The score is one of my favorites: Cy Coleman's music evokes the drama of the 1940s, and features a tight jazz quartet (the Angel City 4), and Zippel's lyrics are extremely clever. But while over time I've learned the score by heart, I had forgotten how funny Larry Gelbart's book is, with more double entendres and razor-sharp wordplay than a week's worth of detective movies on TCM. (My favorite line - a character complaining about a cheesy radio crooner describes him as "A tenor I wouldn't give two fives for.") City of Angels was the third Broadway musical I ever saw, and I've been eager to revisit the show ever since. So I was excited to see that the Gallery Players, who did an incredible production of Caroline, or Change a few months back, were tackling it.
The brilliant, Tony-winning design of the original production has stayed with me as one of the most incredible visual experiences in the theatre. The stage was split in two: Stine's side (the "real" people) were in vibrant color, while Stone's side (the film noir detective movie) was in rich black and white. As the story of City of Angels can get confusing at times (just like any 1940s detective movie - say, The Big Sleep for example), this split set helped separate the two worlds (that is, until they overlap at the end of Act One). With a much smaller stage, director Trey Compton decided to stage both worlds on top of each other: set pieces are either two-sided (color on one, b&w on the other) or else actors flip small panels back and forth. While I admire Compton's ingenuity, the staging at times becomes busy, and I fear that if one doesn't know the set-up at the beginning, one might become confused. And I was a bit confused by the lighting design: for some reason, Stone's black and white world is here lit very dimly, which sometimes makes it hard to see the actors. And while the lighting certainly evokes an old-time movie, it is almost too atmospheric: often tinged with green, the lighting sometimes takes away from the stark tonal contrast between the two worlds.
But I imagine that for those who never saw the original production, these will be minor quibbles; certainly it seems unfair to expect million dollar design for $18 a ticket. Fortunately, the performers are all worth the trip to Brooklyn. Danny Rothman plays a droll and understated Stone, and amazingly, he sounds exactly like a 1940s film noir detective. The resemblance is really uncanny. Jared Troilo is his counterpart Stine, the increasingly frustrated writer; Trolio's final solo "Funny" is one of the highlights of this production. Other standouts include Abby Stevens as both Stine's wife Gabby and Stone's old flame Bobbi, and Greg Horton as the audacious and controlling movie producer/director Buddy Fidler. Stevens deftly creates two opposing characters - a grounded Gabby and a melodramatic Bobbi. And Horton, who has one of the strongest voices in the cast, gives us a Buddy we can love to hate.
As I expected, the Gallery Players do a fine job with City of Angels; if not Broadway caliber talent, this production has much to recommend. Sure, maybe some of the actors are a bit young for their roles, and sometimes Stine's typewriter is louder than any one person on stage. And if a few songs are slower than I might prefer, the action generally flies by, as do the never-ending one-liners. As good as City of Angels is, the material might easily become campy if over-played even a little. But the Gallery Players clearly "get it," and have a lot of fun with the show. And from the first clack of Stine's typewriter through to the (what else did you expect?) "Hollywood ending," you will as well.
(City of Angels plays at the Gallery Players Theatre, 199 West 14th Street, between 4th and 5th Avenues, in Brooklyn , through May 23, 2010. The five remaining performances are Thursday and Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Tickets are $18; seniors and kids under 12 are $14. Running time is approximately 2 hours 40 minutes, with one intermission. For more information, and to purchase tickets , visit galleryplayers.com, or call 212-352-3101.)