Putting on the musical City of Angels is a daunting task: Present a show that explores the dark side of Hollywood screenwriting in the 1940s by mashing two different stories together—the script as it’s being written and the “real life” of the screenwriter and those around him. And lets do the former story in film noir-ish black & white and the latter story in full color, with singing, dancing lots of double-casting to handle both stories, and a shitload of scene changes. And make it funny!
That’s a full plate of theatricality to handle, and the Beck Center team under the direction of Scott Spence makes a lot of it work. It helps to have a clever script and in this case they do. Indeed, the words, as penned by the book writer Larry Gelbart for the musical City of Angels, are one of the unalloyed pleasures of this production at the Beck Center.
The clever lines come so fast and furious in this show, it’s almost impossible to catch them all. We’re watching a private eye named Stone start his week in his small Los Angeles office, and listening to his hard-bitten thoughts as they’re typed out by a guy named Stine who’s writing his character in this Sam Spade-style script.
Stone has a grudging appreciation of the la-la-land weather (“There’s enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh.”) But he’s depressed in general, saying to himself, “Was it only Monday? Can your whole life roll over and play dead, turn bad-side-out in just seven days?”
Gelbart, the iconic comedy writer, has wit and style that other writers only dream of possessing. And that’s good, because there are several aspects of this show that never quite come together in the same superb way as his wry words for Stone, Stine and a couple other characters. And one of them is the overly complex plot that drags in a galaxy of subplots and characters (32!), all of whom have names and something to say. The mind reels.
The music by Cy Coleman with lyrics by David Zippel offer a couple enjoyable moments, such as the Act One closer “You’re Nothing Without Me,” when writer and his fictional creation face off. And then Act Two opens with “You Can Always Count On Me” as one performer, Brittni Shambaugh Addison, plays two put-upon women—Oolie and Donna—and does both justice. But many of the songs reach achieve a sort of period authenticity at the expense of being rather dull musically.
Jamie Koeth is believable as the schlub writer Stine, and he sings great—including an ability to hold the concluding note of a song so long it seems like he rented another lung. And Rob Albrecht, as his doppelganger Stone, snaps off his witty lines with style. But not as much style as Greg Violand employs in the dual role of Stine’s real studio boss Buddy and the screenplay’s fictitious Hollywood producer Irving. Violand knows his way around the stage and he chews the scenery like a gourmand, devouring his many comical moments with relish and inviting the audience to share in his bounty.
Other strong performances are handed in by Leslie Andrew as Gabby and Bobbi (Stine’s wife and Stone’s lover), Carlos Antonio Cruz who plays Vargas and Munoz (the first in Hollywood, the second in the movie), and Sonia Perez as Alaura and Carla (Stone’s wealthy client and, oh…never mind).
The hard-working cast isn’t helped by Jordan Janota’s scenic design, which features a towering and unmoving set of letters spelling out “Hollywood.” Aside from being obvious, this gargantuan presence on the stage impedes many of the projections from being fully seen. In addition, it gets in the way of the color changes that lighting designer Trad A Burns uses to differentiate the scenes. As a result, the visual impact of this production is far less powerful than it might have been.
Hats off to Beck and Spence for taking on this challenge, and to the performers who damn near make it all work. But as Gelbart’s Stone might say of City of Angels, “This plot hopped on the wrong crowded train, grabbed some shuteye, and woke up two stops past Deadtown.”
City of Angels
Through August 13 at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540, beckcenter.org