City of Angels

Score by David Zippel and Cy ColemanCast-Header

Book by Larry Gelbart

Directed by Nick Bowling

Produced by The Marriott Theatre, Lincolnshire

Film Noir and Hollywood Studios Make a World of Song and Sleaze

Since the original Broadway run of City of Angels won Tony Awards for best musical and best book in 1990, it would be hard to argue that the show is underappreciated, exactly. However, due to the difficulties it presents in terms of staging, it is relatively rarely performed. The Marriott Theatre took on a major challenge, both by selecting a lesser known work for their commercial programing, and by mounting such a complex play in their arena stage. However, under the direction of Nick Bowling, their risk has paid off with an artistic triumph. In fact, since City of Angels is a loving parody of the film noir genre that plays with time, space, and the construction of fictional characters, I would even say that this is a case where Marriott’s realism-defying circus-like venue massively improved a show.

©Amy Boyle Photography 2015
Center: Kevin Earley. All photos by Amy Boyle.

The story is represented through two universes: a film studio in the 1940s, and the film that’s script is being written. Stine (Rod Thomas) is the writer. One of his detective novels was a big enough hit for him to get a contract adapting it for $150,000, but he has to sacrifice some creative control to the studio. As he reworks the story of the cop-turned private eye Stone (Kevin Earley), Stine inserts people from his own life into the screenplay. The plot of the book is that Stone is hired one day by Alaura Kingsley (Summer Naomi Smart) to find her missing step-daughter, Mallory (Erin McGrath). Stone smells trouble, but Alaura is rich and alluring, so he accepts a dangerous assignment in return for pay high above scale. The Kingsleys, it turns out, are fantastically wealthy and possess hidden, long-reaching influence, but their elderly patriarch is dying. Stone ends up caught amid all sorts of double-crossing as they vie for the family fortune, and has his own murky past with a nightclub singer, angry former cop buddies, and a violent new religious movement to reckon with.

Meghan Murphy and Danni Smith
Meghan Murphy and Danni Smith

It’s pulpy stuff, but Stine was proud of having inserted some social commentary into his convoluted pot boiler. However, producer-director Buddy Fidler (an audacious Gene Weygandt) won’t have anything political compromising his studio, and is not blind to how Stine models a murder victim in the movie off of him. Meanwhile, Stine’s wife flies back to New York City, and Stine begins an affair with a studio secretary. He enjoys the self-loathing this causes him. But as Buddy’s overbearing rewrite wears away Stine’s patience, and Stine learns more about how Buddy manipulates the supposedly personal lives of everybody in the project, he becomes increasingly disillusioned. Maybe his alter-ego Stone can give him a pep-talk.

The key to understanding City of Angels is that Stine’s struggle with the studio system and temptation into corruption is just as much a loving send-up of Hollywood clichés as his detective story. Costume designer Nancy Missimi and set designer Thomas M. Ryan contrast the silver-toned world of Stone with the garish, technicolor world of Stine, giving each a style that can be instantly associated with a cinematic era. Book writer Larry Gelbart supplies both sets of characters, played by the same actors, with endless clever one-liners and retorts. And Nick Bowling’s transitions are nearly seamless, allowing the constant whirl of props and costumes to establish two imaginary worlds that feed into each other, rather than just one affecting the other.

Gene Weygandt and Rod Thomas
Gene Weygandt and Rod Thomas

Ryan T. Nelson’s music direction keeps the score as lively as the lyrics. One of the funniest songs in the show is “You Can Always Count on Me,” by Meghan Murphy, who plays both Stone’s secretary Oolie and Stine’s mistress Donna. It’s also one of the best examples of how the show parodies film noir by presenting it seriously, just with a little more self-awareness, while carefully preventing its comedy from becoming camp. The always wonderful Danni Smith appears as Stine’s wife Gabby and Stone’s girlfriend Bobbi, sporting a perfect 1940s radio accent, and crooning the Act I torch song “With Every Breath I Take.” But the most fun songs in the show are the confrontations. Stine and Stone end Act I with the verbal battle “You’re Nothing Without Me,” which is another rapid-fire display of wit from lyricist David Zippel, while Gabriel Ruiz lights up the stage with the hilariously vitriolic “All You Have to Do is Wait,” in which his character, Officer Munoz, anticipates Stone’s gas chamber execution.

Erin McGrath
Erin McGrath

With such energetic songs, beautiful design, and clever storytelling, City of Angels is a sure afternoon or evening of great fun. Nick Bowling’s direction makes it one of the rare shows that entertains fans of both traditional musicals and more abstract dramas, a perfect combination for the commercial theatre. Of course, some familiarity with older movies makes the show much more enjoyable, but its themes and cleverness make it a perfect bonding opportunity for families with teenagers, or young adults out with their grandparents. This musical has a little bite to it, which I admit was a pleasant surprise, and I hope to see it become better known.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis
3jacob.davis@gmail.com

Reviewed June 17, 2015

This show has been Jeff recommended.

For more information, see City of Angels’ page on Theatre in Chicago.

Playing at The Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. Tickets are $50-55; to order, call 847-634-0200 or visit marriotttheatre.com. Shows are Wednesdays at 1:00 pm and 8:00 pm, Thursdays and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 4:30 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 5:00 pm, with select performances on Thursdays at 1:00 pm through August 2. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission.