For their second outing, burgeoning musical theatre producers, Life Like Company have brought us the gift of City of Angels. An often-overlooked gem of the 1989-90 Broadway season, this wonderfully stylish show has never received a professional staging in Australia for reasons that become clear when you begin to understand the complexity of the plot and the staging it requires.
Larry Gelbart’s dazzlingly funny book not only spoofs detective films of the 1940s, but also profiles the personal life of the screenwriter of the movie within the play. Mystery novel writer Stine has been asked to adapt his work into a screenplay by director/producer Buddy Fidler, but he quickly learns the machinations of Hollywood as everyone from Buddy’s secretary, the film’s cast, his wife and even the fictional characters of his story start to pull his writing apart.
Director Martin Croft has followed the original concept by dividing the stage in two, with the movie world of fictional gumshoe Stone in black and white on one side, and the real-life Hollywood of Stine in full colour on the other. The story switches back and forth from the case Stone is cracking to the world of compromises in which Stine must write and rewrite his screenplay, while characters in the real and fictional settings parallel each other and the actors playing them do double time in dual roles.
The concept is as brilliant as it is intricate and only a careful hand with clear ideas will ensure the audience can keep up with the complexities of both plots, which Croft has done admirably within a reportedly short rehearsal period. The essence of film noir characters and their stylings are captured beautifully under his guidance, while being craftily contrasted in a more familiar musical theatre style on the real-world side. There are some moments of scarcity in the staging that will have been brought about by the lack of time to prepare, that see some performers looking slightly lost for ‘business’ to do, or playing in parallel to one another, but this doesn’t detract too greatly from the whole.
Stine (played by Anton Berezin) is one of those rarest of musical theatre beasts, the anti-hero lead character. His scruples are frankly questionable at both work and play, acquiescing to the wants of his rapacious producer as quickly as he does his own desires, once his wife is out of the picture. Skilfully displaying Stine’s crisis of conscience and keeping the character on a necessarily even keel, while the parade of Hollywood crazies hover around him, Berezin is in fine form, particularly on the vocal front. Numbers such as “Double Talk” and “Funny” with their stretching final refrains are quite simply, knocked out of the park.
Meanwhile, Kane Alexander as Stone trades blows and quips in the quintessential way of a classic Hollywood private dick. Whether it’s eyeing up mysterious heiresses or working his way around shady gangsters, Alexander is perfectly in tune with Gelbart’s ingeniously comical script. When it comes to the show’s most famous tune, “You’re Nothing Without Me”, a showdown between Stine and Stone, the writer and his creation, the theatre is electrified by the performances of these two men.
This grudge match song isn’t the only brilliant duet in the score, as the construct of the story provides for a number of tuneful head-to-head tunes. Notably, “The Tennis Song” where Stone and his femme fatale Alaura Kingsley (Anne Wood) trade euphemisms and “What You Don’t Know About Women”, a number that parallel’s the opinions of Stone’s secretary Oolie (Amanda Harrison) and Stine’s wife Gabby (Chelsea Plumley).
Composer Cy Coleman’s wonderfully jazzy score is embellished with devilishly witty lyrics from David Zippel, whose way with an intellectual double entendre is only surpassed by the likes of Sondheim. Musical Director and conductor Kellie Dickerson has taken advantage of every riff, tempo and rhythm that Coleman provides, making for a toe-tapping night. She has also clearly worked closely with the excellent Angel City Quartet (Jennifer Peers, Melissa Langton, Andrew Koenert and Connor Crawford) to bring together the deliciously tight harmonies of the skat style “Prologue”. Further, listening to Dickerson’s 13-man orchestra blast through the score is as much a delight as what’s going on above the pit, so it seems unnecessary to treat the audience like they won’t appreciate the “Exit Music” by forcing the performers to stay on stage after “Bows”. It’s an unusual choice from Croft that flattens the elation felt at the end of the show, and frankly makes things uncomfortable for everyone, so I hope that choice is reversed after opening night.
The afore mentioned three leading ladies (Harrison, Plumley and Wood) bring a divine level of sparkle to their roles that make seeing this production easily recommended. Harrison plays perfectly the dual role of secretaries – the put upon movie character Oolie, and ‘the other woman’ Donna of Stine’s Hollywood – making a standout of her number “You Can Always Count On Me”. As Stone’s ex-fiancé Bobbi, Plumley gives a masterclass in playing the kind of film noir ‘dames’ that private detectives obsess over, full of breathy over-blown drama before delivering a heartbreaking torch song. Then she gives a startling turn as Stine’s betrayed wife Gabby. Finally, Wood completely encapsulates the classic femme fatale with her portrayal of Alaura, finding ways to fill the heightened drama of the ‘fictional side’ of the play that leave you on the edge of your seat, just as good film noir should.
Troy Sussman has found the role he was born for as Buddy Fidler, absolutely embodying the metaphor mashing character who is also crushing Stine’s Hollywood fantasy.
Set design by Robert Alexander Smith features an impressive permanent backdrop of the Hollywood hills, complete with original ‘HOLLYWOODLAND’ signage (as it would have appeared in the 40s) and makes nice nods to film noir conventions, such as venetian blinds, but is clearly limited by budget. More expense has been spared for Kim Bishop’s costumes, which provide much of the contrast between the black and white film world and technicolour reality. The ladies costumes look quite sumptuous and smartly uniformed police officers with sharply dressed gangsters make the film side of the story click visually. Rounding out the design is Tom Willis’ excellent lighting which manages to ensure the warmth of the ‘real’ world is never seen in the cooler hues of the silver screen characters, even when following actors on both sides concurrently.
Gelbart’s idea of pitting a writer against his fictional creation is a completely intriguing premise that he doesn’t entirely know how to get out of, leading to quite a fantastical ending. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop this show from having been a bone fide hit in its original production and it’s not hard to see why, with a terrific score and thoroughly amusing dialogue, this is entertainment of the highest order. Life Like Company have provided a rare opportunity to see a show that any true music theatre fan should not want to miss.
The final performance is Sunday 8th November.
For details and tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/musicals/city-of-angels