Lyric's "City of Angels": Flim-Flam Noir

Ed Hoopman & Meghan LaFlam in "City of Angels"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Fabulous” is an overworked word. Pity. It would be so easy and appropriate to apply it to virtually every aspect of Lyric Stage Company's current offering, “City of Angels”. One will have to make do with stylish, classy, sexy, and above all, witty. The 1989 winner of six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Music by Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity”, “On the Twentieth Century”), Lyrics by David Zippel (“Goodbye Girl”, “Woman in White”) and Book by Larry Gelbart (“M*A*S*H”, “A Funny Thing”, “Tootsie”), it's a show that works on several levels, as a play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play, as Gelbart once put it, with almost the entire cast doubling roles. That's quite a challenge, creating great expectations, and this production doesn't disappoint. As wonderfully Directed by Spiro Veloudos, with superb Choreography and Musical Staging by Rachel Bertone and Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta with a great six-piece band, it's a hoot and a half, doing justice to a very literate script and a well-integrated score. It's the sharpest musical play in many a season. Seemingly populated by a cast of thousands (well, this is Hollywood, after all), with seventeen of the most gorgeous people you're ever likely to see (well, this is Hollywood, after all) playing dozens of roles, it's a huge display of local talent. It defies synopsis without revealing any spoilers (including just how the real vs. reel worlds are created), but here goes anyway.

The story (or rather two simultaneous stories, which you'll have to see to appreciate) pivots back and forth from factual to fictive. The “real” plot involves a screenwriter, Stine (Phil Tayler), adapting his own novel (“City of Angels”, no less) as a film for producer Buddy Fidler (J. T. Turner). The screenplay plot centers around private eye Stone (Ed Hoopman), his “girl Friday” Oolie (Leigh Barrett), and a visit from a prospective client, Alaura Kingsley (Samantha Richert), whose stepdaughter Mallory (Meghan LaFlam) has gone missing. Stone's investigations lead to the Kingsley estate where he meets Alaura's lustful stepson Peter (Patrick Varner), her incapacitated husband Luther (Michael Levesque), and his quack spiritualist, “Doctor” Mandril (Damon Singletary). He also runs into two thugs, Big Six (Singletary again) and Sonny (Margarita Martinez), who beat him up, and a movie mogul with a fantastic moniker, Irwin S. Irving (Turner again). After Stone meets the usual suspects in a subsequent murder, his former police partner Lt. Munoz (Tony Castellanos) arrives, with a serious grudge against him based on some mutual history with a singer named Bobby (Jennifer Ellis), and arrests him for the murder, which is a frame-up. He's mysteriously bailed out. Meanwhile, in real life, author Stine has marital problems with his wife Gabby (Ellis again) when he fiddles with Fidler's secretary Donna (Barrett again). He flies off to attempt to reconcile with Gabby, discovering when he returns that Fidler has cast his own wife Carla Haywood (Richert again) as Alaura and singer Jimmy Powers (Davron Monroe) as Stone, along with the crooner's backup quartet, the Angel City 4 (Sarah Kornfield, Elise Arsenault, Andrew Tung, and Brandon Milardo), who it should be noted do a mean scat overture before the plot begins to unreel. A young starlet with an even more fantastic moniker, Avril (wait for it) Raines (LaFlam again), set to play Mallory, begs Stine not to kill off her character. Things then get complicated (they weren't already?), necessitating an imaginative twist at the finale that swiftly ties up any loose ends, neither real nor reel, but surreal. Finis.

As even this compressed plot summary demonstrates, this can be a bit confusing to follow, dependent on the expertise of the director and his cast to keep everything clear (there are, after all, some forty scenes and twenty-eight locations). Veloudos, no stranger to musicals, does so in astounding ways. And so does his remarkable ensemble of players, all of whom excel. Standouts include Tayler and Hoopman (the only actors who don't double) both of whom disappear into the characters they play in “You're Nothing Without Me”, aided and abetted by Barrett (notably in an almost-duet with herself in “You Can Aways Count on Me”), Ellis (in perfect Sondheimian mode for the intricate “It Needs Work”), LaFlam (with her sexy “Lost and Found”), Richert (in the double entendre duet with Hoopman, “Tennis Song”) and Castellanos in his solo (“All You Have to Do Is Wait”, ending with an even higher note than the demanding score requires). And how they deliver those lines, like “flashbacks are a thing of the past”, “two fives for that tenor” and countless other zingers. The creative contributions, especially crucial to this show's look, are tempting to describe, but to do so would be perhaps the most ruinous spoiler. Suffice it to say that, from the smashing Scenic Design by Matt Whiton, gorgeously “colorful” Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, crucial Lighting Design by John Malinowski (in true film noir fashion, right down to the venetian blind shadows), very effective Sound Design by David Wilson, to the fascinatingly clever Projection Design by Johnathan Carr, are all topnotch. Even the cleverly coordinated props by Stephanie Hettrick (Assistant Stage Manager) deserve mention, as do the intricately timed complicated set changes, with more combinations and permutations than at your local mattress store.

All this great talent would be for naught without great material; thus we're doubly blessed. The ingenuity of the work lies in its shrewd knowledge of the underbelly of movies and theater. There are so many clever “in” elements, from rewrites to rewinds, that you almost lose track of them all, but not to worry. Just sit back and let the joy wash over you. While the score never produced any popular songs, it has the rare distinction of boasting very funny songs that are perfectly integrated with the book, always advancing the storyline(s). It's a heartfelt look back at the films of the 40's as portrayed in the theater of the 80's, yet remains timelessly brilliant. Only go to this show if you love musical theater, movies, or both. To paraphrase how the entire ensemble ends the show, “from now on they're with you, and with them is where you belong”.

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