The Singing Detective
The Western Stage's City of Angels offers jazzy take on writers and detectives in 1940s Los Angeles.
Thursday, August 30, 2001
''Your work is perfect! But we''ll fix it." Anyone who has ever heard those words will sympathize with the plight of Stine, the main character in the award-winning musical City of Angels, now playing at the Western Stage in Salinas. Stine is a New York author who is in Los Angeles, writing the screenplay for his detective novel that features his alter ego Stone, who himself seems to be Philip Marlowe''s singing twin. The cleverness of City of Angels resides in the overlap of Stine''s book, his screenplay (which undergoes several rewrites) and his own life. As usual, life in L.A is rarely what it seems.
City of Angels takes place in the 1940s, and its strong score celebrates that period''s swing bands and torch singers, and reminds us of a time when jazz was meant for exuberant dancing. The show''s run on Broadway was brief, but it won several Tony Awards in 1990, including Best Book (Larry Gelbart, screenwriter of M*A*S*H and Tootsie), Best Original Score (Cy Coleman, Sweet Charity, The Life) and Best Musical. Lyricist David Zippel (The Goodbye Girl, Disney''s Hercules) has fun with lines such as "If you''re not celibate/ We could raise hell a bit," and the overall atmosphere of the show is one of wit and style.
Once again, director Tom Humphrey has assembled a talented cast of singers and dancers for this production. And once again, the singers have been ill-served by an unpredictable sound system. On opening night, during a duet between Stone and his former girlfriend Bobbi, the excellent James Knudsen (making his Western Stage debut), was completely without amplified sound, while the orchestra played on and his singing partner, Jacqui Villena, sang her half of the number. The result of this kind of technical mayhem is unfair both to the performers and the audience. Another problem is that Stone''s occasional voice-over narration is louder than anything else in the production, which creates a feeling of imbalance. This is a shame, for much else about this production shows a high level of care, from its superb set and costume designs to its hardworking performers and outstanding orchestra (conducted by Don Dally). One hopes that for future performances audio engineer Christopher Roy and sound supervisor Derek Duarte will have repaired whatever it is that bedevils the Western Stage''s sound system.
This production''s best moments were provided by Murphy Hart, who plays the dual role of Oolie, Stone''s secretary, and Donna, assistant to Buddy Fidler, the pompous Hollywood producer who makes Stine''s life so miserable. Hart''s confident, intelligent performance is a real stand-out, from the moment she appears on stage, wisecracking that "some guys would crawl out of a grave to cheat," to her knockout solo number, "You Can Always Count On Me."
With its style and subject matter, City of Angels might seem like little more than an exercise in nostalgia. Yet its exploration of the inevitable conflicts that result from translating a written work to film has bite. Fidler (Grant McKee, in an enjoyably loud-mouthed performance) tells Stine that all the references in his original novel to racial tension must be removed for the film version. "Change all that black and brown to red, white and blue!" he exclaims. Here the show''s creators touch on a problem of real consequence, such as when Alice Walker''s novel The Color Purple was drained of its lesbian nuances by Steven Spielberg for a middle-of-the-road movie audience.
In the end, City of Angels, like any musical, is all about entertainment, a point underscored by the energetic quartet of dancers who open and close the show, and by a wonderful quartet of singers who sound a lot like Manhattan Transfer. Offering occasional musical commentary from above the stage, at one point they even croon cheerfully that "Ya Gotta Look Out For Yourself" while Stone is getting beat up in his apartment by thugs. Musicals may get stranger and more gritty with each passing year--witness two of this year''s best films, Moulin Rouge and Hedwig and the Angry Inch--but it always comes down to telling stories to the audience, as every culture always has, with singing, dancing, and, with any luck, some really cool costumes.
City of Angels runs through Sept. 15 at the Western Stage, 156 Homestead Ave., in Salinas. Call 755-6816 or 375-2111.