note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
Recently, during a sleepless night, I channel-surfed TV and found a great film noir, starring 1940s handsome, heart throb, Mark Stevens, as a “framed” private investigator; dignified Clifton Webb portraying a wealthy, jealous murderer, whose glamorous wife is cheating on him with a pretty boy social climber; and Lucille Ball (who knew?) as the investigator’s secretary-love interest, who helps save the day.
I was rapt, laughing at times, at the gangster, double-entendre lingo and body language, the same, tired plot, same stereotypical characters, same sets, and same shady dealings that thrilled post-war audiences. That middle-of-the-night, reminiscent foray prepared me well for Lyric Stage Company’s slick production of Larry Gelbart’s multi-Tony Award winning musical, “City of Angels,” with music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel. The multi-award winning, 1989 Broadway hit wowed audiences in Los Angeles in 1991 and London’s West End in 1993.
Actually, it’s not Gelbart’s play that’s magical here. It’s Lyric Director-Artistic Director Spiro Veludos’ penchant for finding the right cast, company, and musicians to convert the theater’s small space into a combined stage-film venue, which embraces theatergoers, giving a close-up and personal view of this outstanding 17-member cast’s shenanigans.
As theatergoers enter the lobby, they see huge props. An iron lung, furniture, etc., are lined up in the lobby, which the cast and crew swiftly roll in and out at tightly-timed scenes, ensuring no lag time in the two-act, 2-3/4 hour musical play.
This sterling design crew makes it look smooth and easy. Matt Whiton’s handsome, two-tiered set, with two staircases leading to platforms above both sides of the stage, separates real characters from the play-within-a-play’s complementary fictional characters. In the center of the upper level, hidden behind an opaque covering, Music Director Catherine Stornetta and her six versatile musicians provide dramatic, jazzy accompaniment, while John Malinowski’s lighting and David Wilson’s noir sound effects spotlight dual action. Wilson pipes in star Ed Hoopman’s deep, dramatic voice, narratively flashing through Gelbart’s story and story-within-the-story, a` la noir film tradition.
But Veloudos doesn’t stop there. Creating an authentic-looking 1940s, black-and-white detective film genre, a large, movie screen/scrim beams Johnathan Carr’s background scenery.
Jazzy Angel City 4, (composed of melodic quartet Elise Arsenault, Sarah Kornfeld, Andrew Tung and Brandon Milardo, who also fill in cameo, supporting roles) revs the audience up with their snazzy Manhattan Transfer-style introduction.
Then, the darkness begins. Primary, fictitious character Stone intones his demise, as his body is wheeled away. The scene shifts suddenly. Seated above, novelist Stine types away his story, making changes, while the actors on stage enact, back up, and re-do his screenplay-in-the-works.
Main characters swiftly shift from one dual role to another, as “reel world vs. reel world” collide. Main characters are carefully balanced, flawlessly morphing back and forth into their counterpart fictitious alter-egos, while maintaining their smooth pace.
Whiton’s set also morphs, from Stine’s upper level office to his fictitious private investigator Stone’s stage-level office; a movie producer’s office; a Hollywood set; Stone’s bedroom; Stone’s Girl Friday Oolie’s bedroom; a hotel room; fictitious, wealthy magnate Luther Kingsley’s (Michael Levesque) stately mansion and his room, where he lies immobile in an iron lung; and more.
As Stine re-writes his latest novel into a film noir screenplay, he crosses ideology and compromises his artistic integrity with a sleazy, finagling movie producer-director Buddy Fidler and Tinseltown mogul Irwin S. Irving (J.T. Turner). Amidst this furor and activity, versatile actor Phil Tayler as Stine and Ed Hoopman portraying his main character Stone make great music together, especially during their duet, “You’re Nothing Without Me” and its triumphant final reprise.
Not surprising is popular Boston actress Leigh Barrett’s versatility in dual roles Oolie, Stone’s fictional secretary, and Donna, movie producer-director Buddy Fidler’s, efficient go-to girl. Barrett unleashes her sexy, comedic side and her marvelous voice in her bittersweet solo, “You Can Always Count on Me”.
Samantha Reichert adds glamor and sex appeal as femme fatales Carla Hayward, Fidler’s vapid wife, and fictional, plotting murderess, Alaura Kingsley. And pretty Jennifer Ellis is touching, in her contrasting roles, as Stine’s wife, Gabby, and Stone’s torch-singing, fallen angel love interest, Bobbi.
Meghan LaFlam slithers and shimmies around as bright-eyed ingenue Avril Raines, who wants her role expanded as Alaura’s stepdaughter, Mallory Kingsley; Davron Monroe earns appreciative applause as crooner Jimmy Powers, with his solo, “Stay With Me,” while Tony Castellanos portraying actor Pancho Vargas and resentful fictitious police detective Lieutenant Munoz also impresses.
Kudos to Veloudos who welcomes theatrical challenges, and shows no production is too big for him. Although Gelbart’s first act is too long, the second act picks up the pace with high voltage, unfurling Stine’s increasing resistance to filmdom’s ridiculous script changes, its mystery revealed with dizzying activity, thus leading to “City of Angels’” satisfying finale.
BOX NFO: Two-act, 2-3/4 hour Multi-Tony Award winning musical, book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel,appearing through May 2 at Lyric Stage Company of Boston, 140 Clarendon St., Boston, featuring a Boston star-studded cast. Check for related events. Performances: Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 3 p.m. Wednesday matinee, April 29, at 2 p.m. Tickets start at $25; senior,student,group discounts. Call 617-585-5678 or visit lyricstage.com.