Staging the screen: City of Angels plays out perfectly in parallel storylines

Live Arts doubles down with a technically complex, visually rich production of the Tony Award-winning musical City of Angels. Photo: Ron Rammelkamp Live Arts doubles down with a technically complex, visually rich production of the Tony Award-winning musical City of Angels. Photo: Ron Rammelkamp

From the minute the show starts, the story is on.

At the back of the theater, a live band shimmers the percussive score. Up front, near the rafters, a doo-wop group sings in perfect 1940s harmony, sounds and silhouettes spotlighted on their perch. The room feels like a vintage nightclub, an oldies radio station come to life.

On stage, the world bustles with tight choreography. More than a dozen men and women shake hands, embrace and argue. Production assistants dressed in uniforms move large stage pieces, conjuring streets synonymous with sound stages. We’re in Movie Town.

Then the world turns cinematic. Two gunshots fired, a burst of brightness, a man lying on a gurney with a bullet in his shoulder. But will he live?

“A private dick,” comments the white-frocked orderly. “No great loss if he don’t.”

So we meet our hero, Stone, whose recorded voice begins to narrate reflections on death and how it all began. From that moment, the show turns straight film noir.

Flashback to Stone’s girl Friday answering the phone. The man himself appears wearing a long black jacket, his fedora askew, lips pursed to the right. His look and timbre echo every private eye who ever graced the silver screen: drinking whiskey, peering through window blinds, making fast-paced jokes and hyperbolic analogies like, “L.A., truth to tell’s, not much different than a pretty girl with the clap.”

It’s only a matter of time before the femme fatale appears (along with Stone’s profuse and hilarious descriptions of her body), setting the detective off on a chase that involves hired hit men, vengeful cops and melodramatic duets with past flames.

And that’s just half the story.

With music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel and book by Larry Gelbart, City of Angels debuted on Broadway in 1989, and went on to win six Tony awards including Best Musical. Live Arts’ version nails the humor and pulls off the music, creating a delightful, tongue-in-cheek romp through the fiction of Hollywood glamour.

In addition to exaggerated film noir tropes, the show follows the story of the screenwriter himself. Stine has been hired to turn his novel and latest protagonist, Stone, into a high-budget movie. His wife, also a writer, warns him against selling out —which may prove impossible, thanks to a micromanaging producer/director.

At first, you think Stine creates Stone as a souped-up fantasy self, which isn’t surprising considering every other character in the movie pulls directly from Stine’s social circle in their looks and type of relationship.

But early on, Stine says, “My characters choose me,” and you realize the relationship isn’t as black and white as it might first appear. The motion picture echoes life—but the real fun starts when art begets life. I won’t say much more, just try to imagine a duet between Stone and Stine.

A play in which stage artists weave scenes from  both motion pictures and real life results in a densely layered, elaborate undertaking. The production team is just as big as the 21-person cast, and with good reason: This is one of the most technically complex shows I’ve ever seen at Live Arts. They construct a movie on-stage, which means loads of fast changes and cuts between scenes, plus the pressure of an audience watching every move. (In Hollywood, you have the luxury of dozens of takes, a camera that stops rolling, heavy edits and the cutting room floor.)

Director Matt Joslyn, musical director Kristin Baltes and their teams both onstage and off do a remarkable job bringing this show to life. Special props to scenic director Rachel DelGaudio and lighting designer Robert Benjamin, who give us firm ground from which to experience the delight without disorientation.

Though some singers were stronger than others and at times the live music muffled the words (an issue that was corrected by press time), City of Angel’s blanket humor makes you wonder which, if any, snafus are intentional.

Russ Witt seamlessly slips between lovelorn husband, fame-hungry author and self-doubting creator, while Michelle Majorin, who plays his wife, Gabby, brings a welcome dose of maturity to the relationship. Chris Estey’s Stone is instantly likable and easy to root for, with comic timing matched only by Danielle DeAlminana, whose femme fatale, Alura, seems lifted directly from film noir. Pat Owen’s bombast is perfect for outsized bigwig producer/director Buddy, and, as Munoz/Pancho, Jeff Dreyfus is simply magnetic. Madison Probst brings the right amount of spunk to Donna/Oolie. Each ensemble member elevates the experience with a playful, goofy commitment to the show’s larger-than-life concept and it’s infectious.

The plot itself, propelled by humor and whodunit, reads like fireworks: pithy scenes from Stone’s world burst at staccato intervals, punching up the familiar narrative of a writer with angst and a wandering eye. You understand why Stine self-identifies with Stone: His issues reflect a quest for meaning.

It’s every writer’s dream to be paid handsomely for his work, and every writer’s nightmare to sell out. Presented with both, Stine needs to discover what type of fidelity matters. Do you risk your morals for money? Love for passion so hot and heavy it makes you do stupid things (can’t elaborate without spoilers, folks)?

It’s a roiling soup of cinematic inquiry, dashed with the truth it springs from. Live Arts serves it hot and tasty, and if you try it, you’ll probably like it.

City of Angels

Live Arts

Through January 10