Friday, July 03, 2015

Watching the Detectives: Despite Deft Doppelgänger of a Production, Marriott Theatre Doesn't Quite Solve 'City of Angels' -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

City of Angels
a musical
Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire, IL
Thru August 2

It might seem somewhat odd for me to have a longstanding sentimental attachment to a relatively obscure, rarely staged musical such as City of Angels.

Although I like film noir, which inspires the show's gestalt, and lived in Los Angeles from 1990-1992, during which time the show ran both on Broadway and in nearby Century City, neither factors heavily into my nostalgia.

In fact, I'm pretty sure I was oblivious to the musical's existence at the time, having avoided the Broadway form--and passing on opportunities to see early tours of such shows as Evita, Cats, Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon--after having been indoctrinated to the art form through The Wiz, A Chorus Line and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas well before I was a teenager.

But in 1993 I went to London for the first time, and while there got myself a ticket for a West End musical, which happened to be City of Angels.

This made it the first musical I ever opted to see, as an adult, of my own volition--and I recall liking it a great deal as a 24-year-old in London.

It took several more years before I started  going to theater with regularity, and then quite voluminously, but City of Angels still stands as something of a cherished  reintroduction to musical theater, which I now wholeheartedly love.

Such was my fondness for the musical--written by Larry Gelbart, a creator and writer of the M*A*S*H TV show, with music by Cy Coleman and witty lyrics by David Zippel--that in 2003 I ventured to a community theater production many miles from home, though I found it to be just OK.

I honestly can't recall any other local stagings, so I was happy to note it scheduled at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, which always does excellent musical productions, adapted to its in-the-round setting.

But though I was happy to see it, and commend director Nick Bowling and a fine group of actors for an inspired staging of a sophisticated show, I can't say I found City of Angels to be as newly satisfying as my sentiment for it from years ago.

Who knows if City of Angels was truly outstanding at the imposing Prince of Wales Theatre near Piccadilly Circus, or just seemed that way to someone who wasn't all that versed in large-scale musicals.

Certainly, as a hip, innovative show (sans chorus lines, etc.) that weaves together the art and mercenary challenges of Hollywood screenwriting--the dream of which had in part led me to Los Angeles, though nothing material developed--with a noirish detective story, it's understandable why it elicited my affinity.

And somewhat still does.

But perhaps in seeing more than 450 productions of 200+ different musicals over the past 15 years, it may be true that City of Angels--at least as presented at Marriott, with strong singing and overall production values--no longer seems like one of the best, even though it won 6 Tony Awards in 1990, including Best Musical. 

While the show's set-up--with onstage action and songs involving a "real-life" writer named Stine, a movie producer/director, both their secretaries, Stine's wife and assorted others, as well as "reel" characters enacting the movie Stine is writing (led by a Sam Spadesque detective named Stone)--is complicated enough to warrant an explanatory program insert and pre-show announcement, that in itself is not a reason for aversion or antipathy.

The doppelgänger plotlines and characters aren't really that hard to follow, although it doesn't help at Marriott that two of women playing principal dual roles bear a physical resemblance.

But director Bowling obviously has gone to great lengths to delineate the "real" (lit and costumed with vibrant colors) and "reel" (muted hues to connote black & white) scenarios. 

The always-stellar Rod Thomas--fresh off playing Javert in an outstanding Les Miserables in Aurora--does a nice job and sings well as the writer, Stine, although I felt a bit more sardonic humor may have helped his characterization.

Similarly, as the movie's detective, Stone, Kevin Earley--on stage at the theater where his recently-passed mother, Dyanne Earley, long-served as Artistic Director--is definitely good, but doesn't exactly embody Humphrey Bogart.

Three of the five key cast members who play dual roles are much more prominent in either the real or reel narrative, and thus don't engender too much confusion.

Local stalwart Gene Weygandt, so good in Marriott's La Cage Aux Folles, is charmingly smarmy as producer/director Buddy Fidler and his fictional counterpart, Irwin S. Irving.

As Alaura, the movie's femme fatale who hires Stone, Summer Naomi Smart is alluring as ever, and also plays Buddy's wife, who happens to be the actress playing Alaura. As the beautiful young wife of an rich old man (played by David Lively), Alaura engages Stone to find her sexy step-daughter, Mallory (Erin McGrath).

These performers are all excellent, with Smart dueting coyly with Earley on "The Tennis Song"--whose lyrics are perhaps the wittiest in a show full of them--and McGrath delivering a smoldering "Lost and Found."

There is nothing deficient in how Meghan Murphy and Danni Smith handle their dual roles, of reel/real secretaries Oolie/Donna and Stone's ex-lover Bobbi/Stine's wife Gabby, respectively, but the two actresses look enough alike that it added to the challenge of following a plotline--or two--that eventually mystified more than ideal.

I certainly won't give away the ending--as I still feel that this is a worthwhile production of a rare and unique musical--but I don't think I could properly explain it, anyhow.

Yet confusion over exactly what is happening, and why, is only one of the culprits in making me rethink the extent of my longstanding innate affinity for City of Angels.

Despite the shrewd staging, strong performances and careful calibration to distinguish the intertwined plots and characters, I felt hard-pressed to develop any emotional engagement to Stine, Stone or whatever was unfolding onstage.

The show intrigued at times, but rarely sizzled. Which could also be said for the score, despite music by the legendary Cy Coleman and often brilliant lyrics by David Zippel.

Despite some recall from seeing this show twice before, owning the Original Broadway Cast Album and listening aplenty before attending it anew, I would say "You're Nothing Without Me"--sung as a duet between Stine and Stone--is the only truly standout song from a musical that time has largely forgotten.

Other tunes certainly serve the narrative well and demonstrate Zippel's wit--"What You Don't Know About Women," "The Tennis Song," "Lost and Found," "It Needs Work"--but would likely render me clueless if interrogated about City of Angels' music a few years hence.

I will always have a soft spot in my heart for this inventive musical caper, and I'm happy Marriott Theatre has brought it back to life.

But as much as I would like to impart that it brilliantly cracked the case of my suspect memory, I regrettably can't say that it truly arrested me.

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