Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Theatre review: City of Angels

I saw City of Angels in its Edinburgh Fringe premiere in, I think, 1996; all I really remember is being underwhelmed by a show that had been a modest Broadway hit but didn't last long in the West End. Josie Rourke now chooses it as her first musical since taking over the Donmar (and hikes ticket prices accordingly.) With book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel, it's the story of Stine (Hadley Fraser,) a writer of pulp detective novels, but with a hint of social commentary that's earned him a reputation as something of a literary author. He's now made the move to Hollywood, and having sold the rights to big-shot producer Buddy Fidler (Peter Polycarpou) he's now adapting his first novel into a screenplay. As he writes, we see his story come to life as his gumshoe Stone (Tam Mutu) takes on a dangerous case.

The play-within-a-play is an affectionate homage to film noir clichés, as femme fatale Alaura (Katherine Kelly) hires Stone to find her missing stepdaughter Mallory (Samantha Barks.) But with a pair of goons (Nick Cavaliere, Adam Fogerty) turning up pretty soon after to beat Stone up, and Alaura seeming more interested in her handsome stepson Peter (Cameron Cuffe) than her husband trapped in his iron lung, it looks like the case might be an elaborate trap.

While the story plays out on the lower level of the set, Buddy keeps interfering with the screenplay, offering improvements he thinks will make it more palatable to a movie audience. Like Stine himself, the show offers a bit of social commentary about the backdrop on which the story's set - as Buddy insists the movie can do without its subplot condemning racial inequality, the all-black backing quartet (Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Jennifer Saayeng and Jo Servi) are waiting on him hand and foot.

City of Angels has a reputation for being a bit confusing, an accusation that can't be leveled against this production. Robert Jones' design clearly differentiates the Technicolor "real" world of Stine and the filmmakers from the black-and-white world of the film noir. With the two parallel storylines clearly delineated though, I'm not sure either really stands out as having enough to care about. Neither the deliberately hackneyed noir thread nor the "Hollywood will steal your soul" thread have enough surprises to grab the attention, or more importantly make us care much about the characters. Stine cheats on his wife (Rosalie Craig) with Buddy's secretary Donna (Rebecca Trehearn,) a storyline whose resolution is probably aiming for "enigmatic" but kind of lands on "facile."

By far the best moment sees the musical's two plots crash into each other as Stine and Stone interact for a power struggle in "You're Nothing Without Me." Stephen Mear's choreography really explodes into life here as Fraser and Mutu use the many opportunities offered by Jones' set (built up of piles of screenplays,) Howard Harrison's lighting and Duncan McLean's projections, to make what must be the closest thing to a live action Who Framed Roger Rabbit? It's an electric scene but it comes at the Act I finale, and the dynamic is only briefly revisited once again later in the show. The jazzy songs are good if not all that varied, Gelbart's spoofs of dry Chandleresque lines a highlight, and Rourke has assembled quite the musical theatre cast to present the show in the best possible light - Fraser and Craig in particular getting a couple of chances to belt out big numbers. It's a shame, though, that the writers never fully explore the possibilities of the intriguing premise they've given themselves.

City of Angels by Cy Coleman, David Zippel and Larry Gelbart is booking until the 7th of February at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

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