They said it couldn’t be done, but Musical Theatre West went and did it—gave a sold-out house Broadway’s Tony-winning Best Musical of 1989 City Of Angels in concert staged reading form (i.e., without the design elements so much a part of its Broadway and post-Broadway success), and come out with a winner—and all with a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal.

It helps that the material is as good as it gets. 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 an artfully crafted homage to both detective film noir and Hollywood of the late 1940s.

Still, none of this would have been enough to insure City Of Angels’ success in concert staged reading form without David Lamoureux’s inspired direction and an all-around sensational cast.

City Of Angels tells two stories simultaneously, one in color and one in black and white, or at least that’s how the musical has traditionally been staged. There’s the Technicolor tale of a Raymond Chandler/Dashiell Hammett-like novelist assigned to turn his book City Of Angels into a Hollywood flick, all the while dealing with an imperious Jack Warner/Harry Cohn-like producer. Then there’s City Of Angels (The B&W Film Noir), 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), with the rest of its ensemble playing mostly dual roles, one in real life, the other in “reel” life.

Director Lamoureux relies primarily on lighting to tell us which world we’re in, daylight bright for the real world and twilight muted for the reel one, and with a cast as stupendous as the one put together for this one-night-only reading and a live fifteen-piece onstage orchestra onstage, it somehow mattered little that characters wore the same costumes in both worlds, Lamoureux and company trusted in the music and the story and our imaginations to do the rest.

This final entry in MTW’s 2012-13 Reiner Reading Series starred Will Collyer as crime novelist Stine and David F.M. Vaughn as private eye Stone, and featured Jeff Skowron as real-life movie producer Buddy Fidler and fictional Hollywood mogul Irwin S. Irving; Kirklyn Robinson as Stine’s unlucky-in-love secretary Donna and Stone’s equally long-suffering secretary Oolie; Anna Aimee White as Carla Haywood, Buddy’s movie star wife, who plays Alaura Kingsley (the femme fatale who hires Stone) in the movie; Kim Huber as Stine’s girlfriend Gabby, who finds that Stine has cheated on her with Donna, and as lounge singer Bobbi, who loved Stone but cheated on him with Irwin S. Irving; and Nicci Claspell 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 this all sounds a tad confusing, well, City Of Angels has always been a musical best understood on a return visit, and since there’ll be no encore (or at least none by MTW), audiences at yesterday’s reading had simply to sit back and enjoy the ride. I know I did.

Vaughn (a recent scene-stealer as Shrek The Musical’s half-pint-sized Lord Farquaad) proved a spot-on stand-in for Bogart, Mitchum, Ladd, or any of those great black-and-white film noir dicks, duetting a saucy “The Tennis Song” with White, a particularly alluring Alaura in the grand tradition of Bacall, Stanwyck, and Turner (and an equally appealing Carla).

The always astonishing Collyer gave us a thoroughly three-dimensional real-life Stine, bringing the house down with the show’s most dramatic number, “Funny.”

Together, Vaughn and Collyer’s “You’re Nothing Without Me” and “I’m Nothing Without You” closed Acts One and Two respectively with a double-barreled bang.

Skowron threatened to run away with every scene he was in as megalomaniacal Buddy and Irving S. Irving. (I can’t wait to see him play all seven male leads in next season’s Little Me!) Robinson gave her most memorable performance to date as the much put-upon Oolie and Donna, her “You Can Always Count On Me” earning the evening’s loudest, longest cheers and applause in an evening full of long, loud cheers and applause. A terrific Huber created two night-and-day different characters, lending her signature smokey vocals to a pair of the show’s best musical numbers, Bobbi’s torchy “With Every Breath I Take” and Gabby’s bouncy “It Needs Work.”

Claspell, back in L.A. following her starring role in the National Tour of American Idiot, was positively luscious as the show’s pair of teen temptresses, singing a seductive “Lost And Found” with nothing on but talent and a towel. Louis Pardo earned mucho laughter as Spanish-accented actor Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz, the latter of whom got the plum assignment of cantando the Latin-flavored “All You Have To Do Is Wait,” with Jeffrey Landman (county coroner Yamato), Phil Gold (reporter Mahoney), and Jordan Lamoureux (police officer Pasco) as his backup.

Richard Gould was a hoot as old coot Luther Kingsley, director Lamoureux managing to figure out how to put Luther in an iron lung with only a curtain … and our imaginations to fill in the rest. T.J. Dawson and Landman made for a hilariously mismatched gangster duo of Big Six and Sonny, Landman standing in for other-worldly Dr. Mandril as well. William Martinez had great fun spoofing 1940s crooners as the golden-throated Jimmy Powers in both real and reel worlds.

Filling the remaining roles to perfection were Dawson as Police Commissioner; Meloney Collins as maid Margaret and madam Margie, Laura Dickinson as masseuse Anna; Phil Gold as barber Gilbert, composer Del DaCosta, and cinematographer Gene; Gould as actor Pancho Vargas; (Jordan) Lamoureux as Alaura’s stepson Peter, actor Gerald Pierce, and Shoeshine Boy; and Landman as Studio Cop.

Last but definitely not least were the razor-sharp, jazztastic harmonies of Collins, Dickenson, Gold, and (Jordan) Lamoureux as The Angel City Four, City Of Angels’ Greek/Jazz Chorus.

Musical director Alby Potts conducted and played keyboards in the evening’s absolutely sensational onstage orchestra including trumpets, two trombones, four reeds, piano, synth, bass, guitar, drums, percussion, only four short of the original Broadway nineteen, the better to perform Billy Byers’ original Broadway orchestrations as they are rarely heard.

(Director’s note: A lot of that credit [for the onstage orchestra] goes to my contracting partner, Stephan Cardenas, with Los Angeles Musicians Collective. It was his idea to do a “box setup” on stage so the brass weren’t blasting out to the audience. It’s a traditional rehearsal set up for big bands, but the first time we’ve ever used it in performance.)

Anthony Gagliardi provided and styled the production’s wigs, splendidly as always, though I couldn’t help wishing that not only Huber had been given two to better distinguish between characters. Then again performers had enough to worry about without having to recall which wig to wear in which scene.

The Reiner Reading Series is made possible by series underwriters Ken & Dottie Reiner, the Ackerman Family/Evalyn M. Bauer Foundation, and the National Endowment For The Arts. David Lamoureux and Michael Betts are Reiner Reading Series producers. Guillermo Parga was stage manager, Alex Jordan sound engineer, Ben Karasik crew chief, and Mary Ritenhour production manager. Paul Garman is Musical Theatre West’s Executive Director/Producer.

City Of Angels having now concluded the Reiner Reading Series’ latest season with a film noir bang, audiences can look forward eagerly to next season’s Little Me, Where’s Charley, The Goodbye Girl, and a pair of TBAs. If the 2013-14 season is even half as good as this season’s Legs Diamond, 110 In The Shade, The Secret Garden, Kismet, and City Of Angels, Los Angeles-area musical theater lovers are in for five tasty treats indeed.

University Theatre, California State University, Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 25, 2013

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