City of Angels
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., April 16, 2010
City of Angels
Mary Moody Northen Theatre, 3001 S. Congress,
Through April 18
Running time: 2 hr., 25 min.
Listen, sister, the hard-boiled detective genre has been taking shots from two-bit gag writers since Mrs. Chandler's little boy learned the letters "P" and "I." The body's so full of holes now that whenever a Santa Ana wind blows past, it whistles the theme from Peter Gunn. But I'm here to tell you that in City of Angels on the Mary Moody Northen Theatre stage, that particular corpse is looking surprisingly lively – spry enough to do a Broadway chorine high-kick, in fact.
Course, it helps that the wisenheimer who played Dr. Frankenstein on the musical's book was the late Larry Gelbart; I mean, the guy mined laughs out of the Korean War, for the luvva Mike – and on TV. Getting guffaws out of gumshoes must've been duck soup. But the beauty of how he pulled it off here was in spinning a classic yarn of a tough-guy shamus on the trail of a missing deb alongside the tale of a writer trying to turn that very detective story into a script for Hollywood. Scenes of the private eye Stone mixing it up with society dolls, hired muscle, and the business end of a roscoe swap-off with those of his novelist creator, Stine, catching heat from his wife, sultry starlets, and, most of all, his ball-busting bulldozer of a producer. Now, if any story type has taken more hits than the private dick mystery, it's the literary-writer-screwed-by-Tinseltown satire; together, the two are the surf & turf special on the menu at Le Morgue. But Gelbart jolts it to life with the same juice he does the noir material, firing laugh lines on both fronts like a pair of gats spitting hot lead, as when producer Buddy Fidler critiques Stine's script with, "Flashbacks are a thing of the past!" Gelbart's smarts are matched on the song side by lyricist David Zippel, who writes of the poor little rich girl gone wild, "This tomato is one hot potato." And the melodies by Cy Coleman wrap around those lyrics like a satin negligee around the curves of a dangerous dame.
To make material like that work demands style, and the production at St. Edward's University is long on it, like the gams of a Chandler femme fatale. The Los Angeles of six decades past is evoked with an elegant economy in Leilah Stewart's sets, over which Tony Tucci's lights wash with noir's requisite shadows and slatted blinds. In the tuxes and gowns, pleated pants and padded shoulders provided by Jen J. Madison, most everyone comes off looking like society swells; in fact, the women look so smart in those seamed stockings and swept-up hair that you'll wonder how Forties fashions ever went out of style. Most of the performers are too young to have ever dialed a call on a rotary phone, but they show a pretty savvy grasp of the period, slinging deadpan wisecracks and Forties jive like latter-day Bogarts and Bacalls. You half expect to see Jon Wayne Martin's Lieutenant Munoz working a case with Bogey's Philip Marlowe and figure Jacob Trussell's brassy Buddy Fidler would go toe-to-toe on the set with Orson Welles. And the guest artists are as sharp if not sharper, with Sarah Gay steaming up the stage with her sultry socialite's stare and David Long's Stone walking the mean streets with a mug and patter as hard as his name. He and Jamie Goodwin's Stine – who captures the anguish and frustration of the writer rewriting with musical brio – prove a perfect match, and their duet of creator against creation, "You're Nothing Without Me," pumps up the action like a gunfight in the final reel.
You have to tip your fedora to director and music director Michael McKelvey, who oversees the proceedings here from a second-story bandstand, conducting in a crisp white dinner jacket and black tie. He keeps the show humming like the engine of a trigger man's getaway car and makes it a pleasure out of the past.