THEATER REVIEW: “City of Angels” @ Beck Center by Roy Berko

Photo by Kathy Sandham

Through Sun 8/13

City of Angels, a version of which is now on stage at Beck Center, opened on Broadway in December 1989 and ran through January, 1992, in a healthy run of almost 900 performances.   Lakewood’s Dee Hoty, a three-time Tony nominee, played a leading role in the Great White Way run.

A musical comedy, it weaves two plots together making for a movie within a play format. A “reel” world and a “real” world.

It’s Hollywood, late 1940, Stine (Jamie Koeth) has written a detective mystery which has been purchased by a Hollywood studio. It will be produced and directed by Buddy (Greg Violand). In spite of the book being a bestseller, Buddy wants many, many rewrites, based on his perceptions of what makes a great movie. Obviously, the meek Stine and the ego-centric Buddy clash.

The movie is a tale of decadence complete with a hard-boiled detective, femmes fatale, murders, plot twists, beatings, robbery, incest, intrigue, ego, ego and more ego. The real story has a book writer who clashes with the film’s producer/director, a marriage, an affair, and ego, ego, and more ego.

As Stine pounds away on his typewriter, the film’s melodramatic scenes are acted out. Alaura Kingsley (Sonia Perez) is ushered into the inner office of PI Stone (Rob Albrecht). Alaura reveals that she wants to hire Stone to solve the disappearance of her stepdaughter, Mallory Kingsley (Madeline Krucek). The voice-over, a common ’40s movie device informs us, “Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever.” (Yes, that’s the actual line!)  To make matters even more intriging, when Stone returns to his apartment a few scenes later, Mallory is lounging naked in his bed.

In the main, the “movie” viewer will experience: Stone getting a beating from a couple of hoodlums, Alaura’s husband, a sick elderly man encased in an iron lung whose inheritance is of great interest to his family, Kingsley getting accused of murder, a possible poisoning, hanky-panky, more hanky-panky, and yet more hanky-panky — you get the idea.

Meanwhile, in “real” life, Buddy is making changes in the script, Stine tries to keep his writing integrity while having an affair with Buddy’s secretary. He has a confrontation with his alter ego (Stone, the detective in the film). They sing, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” and reality and fantasy collide. They later sing, “I’m Nothing Without You,” and the show ends with a happy ending, actually two happy endings. (Ta-da!)

In spite of the fact that City of Angels won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book and Best Score, it is seldom staged. The reason for this probably centers on the technical and acting challenges, as well as audience confusion in following the dual plots.

Technically, the stage must be shrouded in various shades of black-gray-white for all movie scenes, giving it a film noir quality, with full color scenery for the reality scenes. Fortunately, Beck invested in an expensive projection system for their lush production of The Little Mermaid last year, and having this allows them to accomplish the shading requirements. Bravo to Adam Zeek for his outstanding projection design.

The illumination necessities are well developed by lighting guru Trad A Burns. Another aspect of the technical requirements is the necessity for the clothing to follow the monocolor/technicolor pattern, as well as having era-correct clothing. In general, Aimee Kluiber, the costume designer, has achieved the needed level of differentiation.

The biggest performance challenges are to get the accurate separation of the film acting style from the 1940s realism, and the differentiation between the dance and song stylings of the eras and medias. The film actors should use stylized, exaggerated performance techniques, while the “other” cast must be totally believable and realistic.

Reviews of the show constantly talk of the nonstop laughter brought about by film actor-centered exaggeration, caused by verbal and physical melodrama. It takes master actors to pull this off. Unfortunately, some in this production don’t have the acting chops and/or the extensive training to get the necessary effect. The result is few laughs and film/reality confusion.

Fortunately, Martin Céspedes has delineated the jazz era movements, including jazz hands, body tilts, exaggerated facial expressions, stutter steps and freezes, from the smoother modern era movements.

The musical has parallel musical scores, with the singers and musicians required to change sounds according to the forms of the two competing media, basically a mellow sound versus a jazzy movie tinny background resonance. Larry Goodpaster’s large orchestra plays very well, but the dual musical sounds often flow together, missing the shading that helps clear separation of the film noire from reality. This is especially obvious in the singing. As is often the case at Beck’s Mackey Theater, the sound system squealed on occasion and the voices faded in and out.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: Though it is inconsistent in performance quality, the Beck production of City of Angels gives theater buffs an opportunity to see this seldom-done musical with a fine display of technical effects.

City of Angels runs at Beck Center for the Arts through Sun 8/13. For tickets and information call 216-521-2540 or go on line to beckcenter.org.

 

[Written by Roy Berko, member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle]

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