[Sidebar] The Worcester Phoenix
November 7 - 14, 1997
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Into the swing

Clever directing in Vokes's City of Angels

by Steve Vineberg

CITY OF ANGELS Book by Larry Gelbart. Music by Cy Coleman. Lyrics by David Zippel. Directed by John Barrett. Musical direction by Howard Boles. Choreographed by Sharon Bisantz. Set and lighting designed by D. Schweppe. Costumes by Sue Spencer. With Robert Lawlor Mattson, Jerry Bisantz, Cheryl Salatino, Pamela Schweppe, Jane Eyler, Jennifer Shotkin, Robert Zawistowski, Brad Peloquin, and Robert Jacobs. At Beatrice Herford's Vokes Theatre, Wayland, through November 15.

[city of angels] The idea of City of Angels is irresistible: a film noir musical, set simultaneously in '40s Hollywood and in the mind of a detective novelist struggling to adapt his hard-boiled story into a movie -- one that will both please a power-mad producer and obey the stranglehold restrictions of the Hays Code. But on Broadway, the show was all about its ingenious production design and period costumes. The slick, overblown, kill-the-crowd style ended up crushing the thin Larry Gelbart script and the slight, atmospheric score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel. I had no idea there was anything worth saving until I saw John Barrett's delightfully low-key production at the Vokes Theatre. City of Angels isn't a full-out parody of noir, like John Guare's 1968 one-act vaudeville Cop-Out, but the Guare play, with its seedy visuals and its rapid, un-sensational narrative and scenic shifts, isn't a bad model for a way to approach the Gelbart material. Barrett's version, taking advantage of an efficient, lightweight set by D. Schweppe, doesn't linger. It's been a long time since I checked my watch at intermission and discovered that what felt like an hour-long first act had actually been 90 minutes.

Even stripped for action and performed with brio rather than with that drop-dead phony-baloney Broadway energy, City of Angels has its problems. The scenes from the script that Stine (Robert Lawlor Mattson) is hacking away at are much more amusing than the story of his life. That's because Gelbart has unwisely selected a serious tone for the corruption-of-Stine plot. Stine cheats on his wife, Gabby (Jane Eyler), with his boss's secretary (Cheryl Salatino), and he doesn't treat the secretary much better; Gabby's sure that if he stopped prostituting himself in LA, then he wouldn't have to leave it to his detective character, Stone (Jerry Bisantz), to perform all the heroics in the family. I like the idea of a fictional protagonist that represents the best part of his author and is able to help him out of the jams he gets into in the real world; it's a funny premise. (Their duet, which closes both acts, is called "You're Nothing Without Me.") But Gelbart makes a mistake, I think, in using Stone to put down Stine, and you want to slap that preachy, all-knowing wife. (Luckily for Eyler, she also gets to play one of the sirens in the Stone plot, a nightclub singer named Bobbi.)

The Vokes show brings out all the charm in the Cy Coleman-David Zippel songs, not one of which I remembered the day after I saw the musical on Broadway. There are a substantial band tucked away at the back of that compact stage, conducted by the musical director, Howard Boles, and they sound terrific; so do the singers. Some of the actors could go farther with their roles, especially Mattson, who has an easy presence (and a fine voice) but seems to fade out in the second act, while Bisantz, who starts off as rather colorless, comes more and more into his own as the evening progresses. But I'm grateful not to be bopped over the head; the modesty of the performances has its own special grace. Robert Zawistowski is the producer, Buddy, and Pamela Schweppe has the Lauren Bacall role, doubling as Buddy's faithless movie-star wife and the socialite in the thriller plot. Brad Peloquin plays Jimmy Powers, the crooner she's cheating with, who turns out to be Buddy's pick to play Stone on screen -- Gelbart's joke on the casting of baby-faced musical-comedy juvenile Dick Powell as Philip Marlowe in the 1944 Murder, My Sweet. One of the show's running gags is the ballad Jimmy sings endlessly, "Stay with Me"; the way Peloquin and his back-up quartet (Bob DeVivo, Kristin Hughes, Alison Lemoine, and Richard White) sound, you're grateful for every reprise.

The appealing Cheryl Salatino makes the dual-secretary role (Oolie for Stone, Donna for Stine) more wistful and less tough; that is, she's more Joan Blondell than Glenda Farrell. The biggest crowd-pleasers in the cast are probably Jennifer Shotkin as the wised-up kid sister (inspired by Martha Vickers in The Big Sleep) and Robert Jacobs as the Stone-hating cop, Manny Munoz. Munoz has gritty, racially aware monologues that Buddy infuriates Stine by cutting; here's one time when you can't help siding with the producer. However, he also has a delectable comic tango to menace Stone with, "All You Have To Do Is Wait." The night I saw the show, the audience cheered when Jacobs finished. The enjoyment the actor was clearly taking in performing the song was infectious, and it summed up what I enjoyed so much about this City of Angels: it's out to give the audience a rousing good time, not leave them gasping in the dust.

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