Monday, December 15, 2014

City of Angels: Some Thoughts

Bearing in mind I saw the first preview of City of Angels and could still smell the paint on the set, I can't really "review" it. Things may change between when I as the show and it is open to review.  But because I had been waiting 20 years to see a professional production again I thought there was some merit in talking about the work as I saw it and the production of this Cy Coleman-David Zippel-Larry Gelbart musical being revived at the Donmar Warehouse in London.

For those unfamiliar with the story, a New York writer Stine (Hadley Fraser) goes to Hollywood, like so many before him, to turn his hard-boiled detective character from his novels, Stone (Tam Mutu) into a movie. He butts heads with studio chief Buddy (Peter Polycarpou) and Stine's wife Gabby (Rosalie Craig) an author in her own right, goes back to New York for work. Left on his own he strays and has an affair with Buddy's secretary Donna (Rebecca Trehearn). And as he writes, his screenplay unfolds before the audience in black and white. We see him editing (the characters talk and move backwards) and incorporating people from his real technicolor life into the movie.  A jerk movie studio chief (also Polycarpou). A sexy and loyal secretary Oolie (also Trehearn) etc. In the movie within the musical Stone is hired to find Mallory (Samantha Barks), the missing stepdaughter of gold digging Alaura Kingsley (Catherine Kelly).  Stone takes the job but it turns out more might be going on than meets the eye.  Think something akin to a postmodern, wholly self-aware, comedic version of The Big Sleep with music.

Josie Rourke's production uses projections, lighting, and costumes to set up the black and white world of the movie against the color world of Stine. Typewritten text is projected, letter by letter, as Stine writes. The Donmar is a small space and many directors build up to utilize the space there. Stine often exists on the higher plane which is defined by endless piles of scripts or manuscripts and his typewriter--it's breathtaking.  The lower level allows for sliding doors to reveal Stone's office, Buddy's office, or various bedrooms. This ends up being used to greatest effect during the big Act one closing number, You're Nothing Without Me, where Stine and Stone fight and the color and B/W projections are used as a weapon by each to corner of trap the other. It's an inventive moment but the projections were otherwise a little dull.

First let's focus on the positives. Rosalie Craig's It Needs Work is a showstopper. She hits all the cynical and sass marks just right. She just strikes the right tone throughout the whole show when others don't always get there. Hadley Fraser's Funny also feels right on the mark. The bitterness and frustration bubbling over and he has the voice to carry it. I just wish he had more to sing.  I continue to be impressed by him--he's got the voice and the acting chops and he's a true pleasure to watch.  He and Mutu do an incredibly athletic rendition of You're Nothing Without Me and I could just listen to that number on repeat for hours. In fact I probably have.

Rebecca Trehearn could stand to smile less and play the cynicism of her characters more. She's got the voice and the look, I just think a little bit of happy dialed down to disappointment is called for for her character.  I think she is almost there, she just needs a few tweaks to her performance and then she'll hit the bullseye.  Tam Mutu clearly got this role because of his butt chin and the fact that if Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster had a baby it would be his face.  But I didn't love him. He just kind of played everything the same. Sure, he's a movie private detective and there's not a ton of depth there but he just felt kind of wooden. 

There were some troubling aspects of the production. First Rourke's 4-person ensemble, which carries the group song and dance numbers, is entirely made up of people of color. The performers double in several roles including backup singers to a crooner, household staff, and a police officer. I get that it's a period piece but it felt like a really distinct choice. I'm happy to see a diverse cast when they could have just white washed the whole show (it should also be said Marc Elliott who plays the Hispanic characters Munoz and Pancho who is part of the main cast is part-Indian) but there was something a little weird about the diversity focused on the unnamed ensemble--especially when there is an entire song in the musical about white privilege and Mexicans being kept down in the LAPD. The musical itself feels slightly more self-aware than the production did.  Giving Rourke the benefit of the doubt maybe it was used to identify the issues of the segregated world of Hollywood but something just felt off about it.  Maybe it wouldn't have been as troubling if they also didn't use Day of the Dead masks during the Latin dance number.  It's disappointing to see this kind of cultural appropriation.   

So the bottom line is this musical is just as fun, smart, and acerbic as I remember. But this production has some great things and some truly questionable choices.   Bottom line--we need a U.S. production stat.

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