For a theater company to have been in continuous operation for a record eighty-eight years, it must be doing something right. Whittier Community Theatre certainly is, and their latest production, City Of Angels, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1989, is a perfect example of why WCT is the oldest non-profit amateur theater west of the Mississippi.


Though cast entirely with non-Equity performers, who like virtually everyone involved in WCT productions rehearse and perform without monetary compensation, and operating on a fraction of the budget of local regional theaters or CLOs, Whittier Community Theatre succeeds royally in its stated goals: to provide opportunities for local talents to perform before live audiences, to develop production and artistic skills for local directors and producers, and to provide quality live theater at nominal prices for area audiences.

With tickets going for only $18, and reduced-priced tickets available to seniors, juniors, and enterprising Internet surfers, City Of Angels is well worth the price of admission.

To begin with, the material is great. Cy Coleman’s score is one of his best (and jazziest), David Zippel’s lyrics are clever and witty, and Larry Gelbart’s book is a beautifully crafted homage to both detective film noir and Hollywood of the 1940s.

City Of Angels tells two stories, one in color and one in black and white, an effect mostly successfully achieved by WCT’s design team. The former is the story of a Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-like novelist assigned to turn his book City Of Angels into a Hollywood movie, all the while dealing with an imperious Jack Warner/Harry Cohn-like producer. The latter is City Of Angels The Movie, the kind of “down-on-his-luck private dick meets glamorous-but-dangerous femme fatale” mystery that used to star Alan Ladd or Humphrey Bogart opposite Veronica Lake or Lauren Bacall. City Of Angels The Musical casts its two lead actors as Stine (the writer) and Stone (the detective), and the rest of its ensemble mostly in dual roles, one in real life, the other in “reel” life.


WCT’s production, directed by the always dependable Roxie Lee, stars Eric J. Hindley as Stine and John M. Warner as Stone, and features Eric Nelson as real-life movie producer Buddy Fidler and fictional Hollywood mogul Irwin S. Irving; Veronique Warner as Stine’s unlucky-in-love secretary Donna and Stone’s equally long-suffering secretary Donna; Tara Pitt as Carla Haywood, Buddy’s movie star wife who plays Alaura Kingsley (the femme fatale who hires Stone) in the movie; Brina Schnars as Stine’s girlfriend Gabby, who finds that Stine has cheated on her with Donna, and lounge singer Bobbi, who loved Stone but cheated on him with Irwin S. Irving; and Alissa Sanchez as Buddy’s daughter Avril, who’ll play Irwin’s missing daughter Mallory in the movie on condition that they don’t kill her off in the first reel.

If you’re confused, don’t worry too much about it. I’ve seen several different productions of City Of Angels and still can’t quite get it all straight in my head. A lot of the show’s plot complexity seemed to be stymieing Saturday’s audience, but they appeared to be enjoying the production all the same.

Some fine work is being done by the principal players, particularly by Hindley, who successfully conveys Stine’s world-weariness, and sings the show’s most dramatic number, “Funny,” with the best of them. Warner’s a terrific Donna/Oolie, the latter channeling The Maltese Falcon’s Lee Patrick, and her “You Can Always Count On Me” is a show-stopper. Pitt, a wonderful Cathy in Hunger Artists’ recent The Last Five Years, is a stunner as Carla/Alaura, proving her vocal prowess in “Double Talk” and “The Tennis Song.” Schnars makes a welcome return to WCT as Gabby/Bobbi with two beautifully sung numbers, the torchy “With Every Breath I Take” and the bouncy “It Needs Work.” Sanchez makes for a luscious pair of teen temptresses, belting out a sizzling “Lost And Found.” Warner (Stine) and Nelson (Irwin/Buddy) both have many good moments, and sing well, but their performances could benefit from more sharpness and precision when snapping out Gelbart’s rapid-fire dialog.


Appearing as a kind of Greek/Jazz Chorus (aka the Angel City 4) are Candy Beck, Eric Cajiuat, David Cramer, and Jalin Hsu, spot-on with their four-part harmony and “ba-ba-da-ba-da”s, joined in some numbers by Carlos Centeno as crooner Jimmy Powers. James Esposito does good work as actor Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz, the latter getting the plum assignment of singing the mambo-rhythmed “All You Have To Do Is Wait,” accompanied in fine fashion by Gabriel Borjon, Eric Reyes, and Cajiuat. The hard-working cast is completed by Ana Casillas, David Gutierrez, Raymond Merrill, and Ramone Ramirez, with special mention due Richard DeVicariis, a hoot in multiple roles.

Perhaps the biggest reason for the success of WCT’s City Of Angels is its sensational, CLO quality ten-piece orchestra, conducted by musical director/keyboardist Brian Murphy, whose artistry makes every song sound that much better.

Costumes by Michael Eiden, Nancy Tyler, and Nora Hunter are well-chosen, with special mention due the women’s glamorous 1940s style Hollywood gowns. Linda Brasuell’s set design makes the most of WCT’s budget limitations, nicely distinguishing between color and black-and-white sequences. Lighting by Suzanne Frederickson is also good, though budgetary considerations seem to have ruled out two differently-hued sets of lighting banks, one for B&W, the other for color, which would make the show look even better.


There are still areas where the production could be improved. Mike problems, even occasional ones as occurred on Saturday, do get in the way of a musical’s succeeding as it should. Some scene changes requiring physical maneuvering by stage hands and cast members could be a good deal smoother (and there were a few gaffes at the performance reviewed). A couple of times, actors’ offstage voices could be heard over the speaker system. Finally, there are still some moments in the show which could benefit from a bit more pizzazz.

Still, City Of Angels must be considered an artistic success for Whittier Community Theater, one its participants can point to with pride, and one which does indeed fulfill WCT’s stated goal to “provide quality live theater at nominal prices for area audiences.” At under $20, this may be one of the best bargains in town.

The Center Theatre, 7630 S. Washington Ave., Whittier.
–Steven Stanley
September 12, 2009

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