Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The 7 Shows of Xmas 5: CITY OF ANGELS

Finally, here it was... the one I had most been looking forward to seeing this Christmas. One of my all-time favourite shows, CITY OF ANGELS at the Donmar was bound to fall short of my high expectations - but by how much, Constant Reader?

CITY OF ANGELS, directed by Michael Blakemore, opened on Broadway in 1989 where it ran for over two years, in the process winning the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Musical, Best Book for Larry Gelbart and Best Score for Cy Coleman & David Zippel.

It appeared in London in 1993 but, despite Blakemore again directing and with the great cast of the late Martin Smith, Roger Allam (perfect as the private eye Stone), Henry Goldman (also perfect as the manipulative film producer/director Buddy Fiddler) and the dazzling Film Noir siren quartet of Susannah Fellows, Haydn Gwynne, Sarah Jane Hassell and Fiona Hendley, the show managed only 8 months at the Prince of Wales.  However it still won the Olivier Award that year for Best Musical.

A loving celebration of Film Noir thrillers, Gelbart's wonderfully witty book tells of Stine, a NY crime writer who is lured to Hollywood - against his editor wife's wishes - to write the script for a film adaptation of City of Angels, the latest novel to feature his private eye hero Stone.  However once there, he finds it difficult to remain faithful to his creation with the constant meddling of his tyrannical producer/director Buddy Fiddler - to say nothing of remaining faithful to his wife.  Eventually even his hero has to make his feelings known...

Even without Coleman & Zippel's delicious score, Gelbart's book would be a joy as he switches the action constantly between Stine writing the script and the fictional world he is creating for his hard-bitten private eye alter-ego Stone amid an array of Film Noir characters: the mysterious wife of the decrepit wealthy man, the night-club singer that broke Stone's heart, the lovelorn Girl Friday, the nymphet jailbait daughter, the mysterious quack doctor etc etc.  The actors playing the film characters also double up as the actors and crew of the film Stine is working on and the fun is seeing how life imitates art and vice-versa.

I had a chance to see the show again in 2008 at the Guildhall Drama School where it was proven that you really do need actors who can sing to make the show a success.  So the news that Donmar Artistic Director Josie Rourke had chosen the show to be the first musical she would direct had me cock-a-hoop: who would be cast and how on earth could they stage this complicated show on such an intimate stage?

The answer was: quite easily actually!  Against a towering backdrop of piled up manuscripts, Robert Jones has designed a show that uses minimal set dressing to conjure the mood required and it is aided immeasurably by Howard Harrison's Noiresque lighting and the witty use of Duncan McLean's video projections.  It was a pleasure to see the show coming to life on that small stage.

The casting I have a bit more trouble with.  Countless plays of the original Broadway cast recording have spoiled me as the double act of Gregg Edelman and James Naughton (who won the Tony Award) as Stine and Stone are matchless, closely followed by the London pairing of Smith and Allam.

I am not sure whether it is symptomatic of the calibre of West End leading men at present but although Hadley Fraser could certainly belt out the last notes of DOUBLE TALK and FUNNY - and clamber like a mountain goat over the vertiginous backdrop - I felt he was too lightweight as Stine and Tam Mutu also seemed to lack the real grit needed for Stone, the tough dick hiding a bruised heart.  I was hoping for Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" and got George Segal in "The Black Bird". 

I hasten to add that the two theatre groupies who were sitting next to me more than made up for my muted applause for Fraser as they couldn't keep still when he was on stage.  Bless.

Also disappointing was Peter Polycarpou's Buddy Fiddler.  The perfect scene-stealing role, this Fiddler growled rather than roared.  I don't know whether he was playing down to match the size of the stage but this tyrant of the sound stage came across as some guy from the front office.  Where the production did score big however was with the female cast.

Larry Gelbart wrote four excellent roles which give the actresses playing them a real opportunity to show their versatility.  There is Donna, Fiddler's secretary who helps Stine rewrite his script while seducing him over the typewriter, who also doubles as Oolie, Stone's dependable but lovelorn secretary; there is Gabby, Stine's practical editor wife, who doubles as Bobbi, a cabaret torch singer who Stone loved when he was a cop and who vanished after he took the rap for her shooting a man.  

There is Avril Raines, the dumb blonde 'protegée' starlet of Fiddler who knows plenty when it comes to advancing her career who doubles as Mallory Kingsley, a teenage heiress whose unexplained disappearance is solved when she turns up very much alive in Stone's bed; and there is Carla Haywood, Fiddler's none-too-faithful but no-nonsense actress wife who also doubles as the seductively mysterious Alaura Kingsley, wife of a sickly industrialist who might or might not know more than she lets on.

Josie Rourke has the good fortune to be blessed with Rebecca Trehearn as Donna/Oolie, Rosalie Craig as Gabby/Bobbi, Samantha Barks as Avril/Mallory and Katherine Kelly as Carla/Alaura.  Luckily my two favourite songs in the show were wonderfully performed: Samantha Barks turned up the heat as the seductive Mallory without losing Zippel's delicious lyrical double-play in "Lost and Found" and Rebecca Trehearn stopped the show with Oolie/Donna's "You Can Always Count On Me" - her good-natured but worldly-wise performance suggesting Jane Russell at her brunette best.

Cy Coleman and David Zippel's 40s jazz-style score contains so many great songs that should either bounce off the stage like bullets from a .44 or wrap around you like the smoke from a Femme Fatale's cigarette that at times it was frustrating that they were sometimes too plodding in their arrangements.  The innuendo-drenched "Tennis Song" between Stone and Alaura should feel like a bracing rally but here felt like a full 5-set match (with rain delays).

So... there you have it.  Yes there were things I was disappointed with but would I see it again?  In a hot minute.  All they have to do is whistle...

...you know how to whistle don't you Donmar?  You just put your lips together and... blow.

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