If ever there were a Broadway musical that would seem to lend itself less to being performed as a concert staged reading, it would probably be City Of Angels, and yet wonder of wonders, the Tony-winning Best Musical of 1989 has within less than ten months, served as the basis of not one but two concert staged readings, both of them absolutely inspired.
Presenting 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) is no easy task, not that it is ever a cakewalk putting together an entire production in the mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal allowed by Actors Equity. (Admittedly, the actors do carry scripts, but you’d hardly know it, so on top of the material they are.)
It does help immensely that the musical in question this time round is as good as it gets. Coleman’s score is one of his best (and jazziest), Zippel’s lyrics are clever and witty, and Gelbart’s book is an artfully crafted homage to both detective film noir and Hollywood of the late 1940s.
City Of Angels tells two stories simultaneously, one in color and one in black and white. 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 who wants to rewrite everything exactly as he sees fit.
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.
Following Musical Theatre West’s Scenie-winning take on City Of Angels last August, Musical Theatre Guild has now offered their version of the Cy Coleman/David Zippel/Larry Gelbart classic, and if these two superb readings prove nothing else, they make abundantly clear just how much triple-threat talent there is in the L.A. musical theater world, for with the exception of three returnees amongst the show’s harmonizing Angel City Four, MTG’s reading stars an entirely new cast of performers, this time under the brilliant directorial baton of Joel Bishoff, with Glee’s Brad Ellis making his MTG debut as musical director to memorable effect.
If MTG’s City Of Angels trumps MTW’s ever so slightly, it’s largely because costume designer A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes make sure that each performer in a double role gets a pair of outfits to match the musical’s two color palettes, lighting designer Sean McGarry further insuring that what’s happening mostly on our left (the real world) gets bathed in a rich, warm glow while the reel world on our right gets the starker lighting of black-and-white film.
It helps too that the thrust stage of MTG’s new home at Santa Monica’s Ann and Jerry Moss Theater offers ample space to create City Of Angels’ two universes in three dimensions, frequent “scenery” changes (desks, chairs, phones, an ambulance gurney, and even an ingeniously makeshift iron lung all make appearances) aiding immensely in giving City Of Angels 2.0 a more “fully-staged” feel than was perhaps the case in Long Beach.
Bishoff’s direction is every bit as inventive as was David Lamoureux’s for MTW, with Ellis’s musical direction matching Alby Potts’ (himself a frequent MTG MD) every step of the way, the dynamic duo aided and abetted by one of MTG’s best and most brass-tastic onstage orchestras to date. (If nothing else, Bishoff scores points for quite possibly the most memorable use of scripts-as-props I’ve seen.)
MTW’s City Of Angels happened to feature five of MTG’s most stellar members. MTG’s tops that with a baker’s dozen of Musical Theatre Guild’s finest, and it’s a special treat for any MTG fan to see so many longtime favorites put their own stamp on book writer Gelbart’s iconic cast of characters.
Stan Chandler stars as crime novelist Stine and Kevin Symons as private eye Stone, with John Sloman featured as real-life movie producer Buddy Fidler and fictional Hollywood mogul Irwin S. Irving; Melissa Fahn as Stine’s unlucky-in-love secretary Donna and Stone’s equally long-suffering secretary Oolie; Tracy Lore as Carla Haywood, Buddy’s movie star wife, who plays Alaura Kingsley (the femme fatale who hires Stone) in the movie;
Melissa Lyons Cadretti as a) Stine’s girlfriend Gabby, who finds that Stine has cheated on her with Donna, and b) lounge singer Bobbi, who loved fiancé Stone but cheated on him with Irwin S. Irving; and Ashley Fox Linton as Buddy’s starlet 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.
Chandler and Symons could not offer a more sensationally performed pair of heroes, the former stopping the show with a terrifically sung 11th hour “Funny,” the latter paying pitch-perfect tribute to Bogart, Mitchum, Ladd, or any of those great black-and-white film noir dicks in addition to duetting a saucy “The Tennis Song” opposite a never-more-stunning Lore in Bacall-Stanwyck-Turner mode. Together, our two leading men close Acts One and Two with a double-barreled bang with “You’re Nothing Without Me” and “I’m Nothing Without You.”
Fahn once again shows off voluminous versatility and verve as the much put-upon Oolie and Donna, her “You Can Always Count On Me” showcasing a Broadway belt every bit as gorgeous as her accustomed soprano. Caldretti too is a downright dazzler, whether singing Bobbi’s torchy “With Every Breath I Take” or Gabby’s bouncy “It Needs Work” to audience cheers.
Sloman makes for a marvelously megalomaniacal Buddy and Irving S. Irving, while Linton, these days L.A.’s busiest concert staged reading star bar none, sizzles and sparkles as City Of Angels’ pair of teen temptresses, warbling Mallory’s seductive “Lost And Found” with nothing on but the sexiest sheet in town.
The always awesome Shiroma displays range and comedic chops as Spanish-accented actor Pancho Vargas and Lt. Munoz, the latter of whom gets the plum assignment of cantando the Latin-flavored “All You Have To Do Is Wait” with Zachary Ford, Jordan Lamoureux, and Fletcher Sheridan providing harmonic backup.
Paul Keith makes for a deliciously droll-old-coot as Luther Kingsley and his Technicolor alter ego Walter Kriegler (along with cameos as Second Orderly and Commissioner Gaines). Roy Leake, Jr. and David Holmes earn multiple laughs as the mismatched gangster duo of Big Six and Sonny, the twosome doubling as a pair of Studio Cops and the latter as kaftanned guru Dr. Mandril. Ford delights in multiple bits—primarily as a wonderfully wimpy stepson Peter Kingsley in addition to First Orderly, Mahoney, Nephew, and Clapper.
Christopher Carothers plays tenor-iffic tribute to all those 1940s crooners as the golden-throated Jimmy Powers in both real and reel worlds, backed up by the razor-sharp, jazztastic harmonies of Meloney Collins, Laura Dickinson, Lamoureux, and Sheridan as The Angel City Four, City Of Angels’ Greek/Jazz Chorus, who also execute multiple uncredited B/W-&-Technicolor cameos including Barber, Butler, Cosmetologist, Creepy Caller, Madam, Maid, Manicurist, Masseuse, Photographer, Reporter, Shoe Shine Boy … and more. Oh, and musical director/pianist Ellis gets his own speaking part as well, as songwriter Del Dacosta.
City Of Angels’ expert sound design not only insures tiptop mixing of vocals and instrumentals but features multiple topnotch effects as well.
Damon Kirsche is production coordinator this time round, aided by production stage manager Art Brickman and assistant stage managers Lisa Kakassy and Alexis Resnick.
And though this reviewer has opted to write the above critique almost entirely in present tense as is his wont, like all MTG concert staged readings, City Of Angels was (accent on past tense) a one-time event. In other words, those who snoozed on Sunday “losed.”
MTG having now concluded its 18th season with a film noir bang, audiences can look forward eagerly to Season 19’s exciting medley of Sweet Smell Of Success, Triumph Of Love, The Golden Apple, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and Road Show.
If MTG’s upcoming 2014-15 season comes even close to matching their first at the Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, Southern California musical theater lovers are in for a quintet of tantalizing treats indeed.
The Ann and Jerry Moss Theater, 3131 Olympic Blvd. Santa Monica.
June 15, 2014
Photos: Alan Weston