Gentlemen and ladies, open your programs: The 34-year tradition of summer theater at UVA is back after a hiatus last year due to construction of the Arts Grounds Parking Garage. One thing has changed: The somewhat stuffy name “Heritage Repertory Theatre” is now the more festive “Heritage Theatre Festival.” And another thing hasn’t: The audience still largely consists of senior citizens. The middle-agers and variations thereof, and the handful of college students, stand out like clichés in otherwise original sentences.
Which is a way to jump to City of Angels, the first musical offering of the Festival season. Larry Gelbart, of “M*A*S*H” fame, who wrote the book, asks theatergoers to indulge in the overdone trope of a film noir spoof, with all its attendant devices: sultry interior monologues in the form of voiceovers, characters changing their lines as a writer revises them on his typewriter, glaringly sexist witty banter, etc.
His protagonist is Stine (Garen McRoberts), a young novelist in 1940s Hollywood writing a screenplay about a Sam Spade-like private detective (Rob Marnell) on the hunt for a missing heiress (Holly Williams). There are two parallel stories: the screenplay as it unfolds, and Stine’s many struggles with pea-brained movie mogul, Buddy Fidler (Geno Carr). The tension between illusion and reality mounts as the musical proceeds.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It is. Despite the more serviceable than electrifying music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel, it all essentially works, thanks to Gelbart’s bad (i.e. good) ear for purposely bad one-liners, and the clever way he presents the competing stories, slicing, dicing and reassembling them. After a while, adding one more time to “I’ve seen this a thousand times” doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Heritage artistic director Robert Chapel has often been in the director’s chair for musicals over the years, and he’s in it again for City of Angels. His style, in tandem with whoever his choreographer is—in this case, Perry Medlin—is essentially not to take chances. Given his always rich resources—this time out, McRoberts, Marnell and company, some playing two or more characters, are fine singers and competent actors, and the lighting design by Ryan Bauer and scenic design by Shawn Paul Evans, featuring shafts of smoky light, swathes of shadow, seedy rooms, a sparkling mansion and more, is close to impeccable—Chapel is like a sports team with a big lead playing not to lose. The resulting blocking and pacing has a kind of chiseled stateliness. There’s a distinct pleasure in that, especially in Charlottesville, where musicals over the course of the academic year are often pretty ragged. Some, however, might find Chapel’s approach plodding, or even dull.
But “dull” is certainly not the word to go out with. It’s nice to have Heritage productions of musicals back, whether you’re looking to relax after a tough day or week at the office, or retired and itching for a fun night on the town—though the latter, apparently, don’t need anyone to tell them that.