Thursday, July 14, 2016

"City of Angels"

City of Angels
Cy Coleman (Music); David Zippel (Lyrics); Larry Gelbart (Book)

The Cast of "City of Angels"
--> The tough, hunky private eye hero who falls prey to beautiful women who fall for him ... or at least the femme fatales who make him think they fall for him as they seduce with snake-like charms, shapely hips, and breasts bursting from low necklines. 

--> The short, gruff police lieutenant who has it out for the taller, more handsome private eye and follows his every move, waiting to catch him before the savvy dick solves yet another mystery. 

--> The tyrannical rich set who always want more, no matter the cost to others. 

--> And of course, mobsters, mayhem, and murder. 

All are the ingredients of the B-movies of the 1940/50s now known and cherished as film noir; and all are key delights in the tongue-in-cheek, pun-packed, 1989 Broadway and West End hit musical, City of Angels, by Cy Coleman (music); David Zippel (lyrics); Larry Gelbart (book).  With incredibly inventive direction, wildly imaginative sets and projections, and a cast that shimmers and shines in every role, San Francisco Playhouse brings back after a twenty-five-year hiatus from the City’s stages a City of Lights for a two-month run that will be missed when it closes and will surely be remembered for years to come.

Brandon Dahlquist as Stone & Jeffrey Brian Adams as Stine
Complicating and complementing the standard noir storyline in this multi-Tony-and-Olivier-winning musical is a parallel and intertwining story about an aspiring novelist, Stine, who is translating his manuscript about his private eye hero, Stone, for the big Hollywood screen.  Full of comedy that often elicits pathos, of true romances that too easily drift into deceit, and of a mega ego that rules over fawning fledglings, the movie-making becomes a script with as many ups and downs, twists and turns, good guys and not-so-good as the movie being written and made right before our eyes.  The result is two interlocking stories with over-lapping, double-cast characters of similar natures.  One is told in full color as the ‘real-life’ drama of 1950s Hollywood; and the other, as black-and-white ‘reel-life’ on a movie screen above the day-to-day set. 

Jeffrey Brian Adams as Stine
As Casting Director, Lauren English must first be congratulated for the production’s Stine and Stone. In so many ways, their contrasts amplify in delicious dimensions the writer and his imagined, heoric counter-self.  At his typewriter in the corner stage and under the mammoth movie screen where his detective hero will appear, Jeffrey Brian Adams as Stine appears diminutive in stature, proper in tie and black-rimmed glasses, and tentative as he maneuvers the demands of his mogul, Hollywood producer.  In contrast, his created Stone (Brandon Dahlquist) stands 'on the screen' almost larger than life with broad shoulders, moves with surly confidence, and dresses just as one remembers Joe Friday from TV’s Dragnet. 

Brandon Dahlquist as Stone
Stine brings a light tenor voice that underlines his sung notes with clear, pitch-perfect intensity for added expression (as in his climatic solo, “Funny”).  Stone’s vocal delivery is more bold and sure in sound in its mostly deeper, broader tones with an air of heroic debonair.  The two opposing actors/characters form a true bond as their stories develop, with Stone becoming Stine’s inner voice, motivator, and even conscience.  Together, the real and the reel heroes score a major winner in Act One’s finale, “You’re Nothing Without Me;” and they meld into one partnership of likened purpose in a reprise, “I’m Nothing Without You.”  Kudos to both Messieurs Adams and Dahlquist for their finely-tuned vocal and acting prowess and their individual and combined abilities to bring wit, heart, and likeability to their heroes of sorts.

The rest of this talented casts doubles, triples, or multiplies even more into characters of both stories, often playing similar roles and types on the big screen and in the world of making films.  With wandering eyes of lust, Nanci Zoppi is on screen Alaura, the trophy wife of her polio-stricken, iron-lung-bound, and rich-to-his-gasping-gills Luther Kingsley (Ken Bill).  She is sexy, slinky, and sneaky as the quintessential femme fatale who lures Stone into her web of deceit with not only her looks but also a voice that slides and slithers in beautiful, rich tones in “Double Talk” and flirts and flexes with sport-and-sex-filled double entendre in “The Tennis Song.”  She is also in the Hollywood story Carla, who is having her own side love affairs while also cynically stubbing her nose at her powerful, ego-inflated husband, movie mongrel Buddy.

As Buddy, Ryan Drummond is loud, bombastic, and bossy while turning on a dime to be syrupy charming if he thinks it will work in duping others to follow his wishes -- especially his writer, Stine.  Always in the seat of being pampered (massages, shaves, etc.), he tells Stine, “You can write whatever you want that comes into your head ... as long as I like it ahead of time.” With flamboyantly cocky confidence, he sings and reprises with others’ back-up, “Double Talk.”  On the screen, Ryan Drummond is also full of inflated ego and brusque manners as another movie big-shot producer, Irwin S. Irving, who exists the script early on due to a surprise visit by Stone when Irving is caught in bed with Stone’s girl.

Monique Hafen as Oolie with Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams)
Particularly outstanding in this strong cast is Monique Hafen who plays both Stine’s loyal (and secretly lovesick) Girl Friday, Donna, and Stone’s admirer and brief but hot affair-mate, Oolie (also Buddy’s secretary).  At one point, each of her characters sings in back-to-back sequence, “You Can Always Count on Me” to Stone/Stine.  Ms. Hafen’s unique, slightly nasal tones totally sell the sad, soulful lyrics before building up to an impressive and spot-on belting of the song’s title. 

Rudy Guerrero as Munoz Arrests Stone
Another musical homerun is hit by Rudy Guerrero as Stone’s once partner, now bitter rival, the police detective, Munoz.  When the short, surly, bulldog-like officer finally believes he has Stone behind bars for an alleged murder, he celebrates in a sassy, saucy “All Ya Have to Do is Wait,” swishing about in samba and salsa moves while singing with snappy air, “I’m leading an ovation at your asphyxiation ... Taking pleasure at your death, and to know your final breath.” 

Stine with Starlet Avril (Samantha Rose)
With a seductive voice and tigress claws, Samantha Rose is a knockout as the screenplay’s Mallory.  She greets in nothing but her birthday suite the surprised Stone, singing, “Teasing lips, pleasing thighs, easy on private eyes” (in “Lost and Found”).  Playing the supposedly kidnapped daughter that Stone is pursuing for the Kingsleys, Ms. Rose is also Avril, a young starlet who will play the young, up-to-no-good temptress in Stine’s screenplay.  In both parts, she is slithering and sexy, just as the noir genre demands.

John Paul Gonzalez is a self-centered pop singer in both the real-life and fictional scenes (as well as the screen’s Kingsley son, Peter).  He is outstanding in humor and hubris as well as voice as he opens Act Two with the Angel City 4 in “Stay with Me.”  Ken Brill, William Giammona, Monique Hafen, and Caitlan Taylor are the members of this recurring quartet who so ably bring that 40s/50s close-knit, four-part harmonies long past in vogue. 

Messieurs Giammona and Brill double on other parts, including two, cartoonish mobsters whose explosive and fiery demise on screen is followed by Mr. Brill’s quick reincarnation into a real-life, Hollywood party in a laugh-out-loud scene that has to be seen to be believed.  William Giammona is also a long-haired (think Tiny Tim), quack doctor who ridiculously caters to his patient, Luther Kingsley, until he too ends up somewhere he did not envision for his future (i.e., the morgue). 

Angel City 4 member, Caitlan Taylor, plays both Stine’s wife (Gabby) and Stone’s once girlfriend (Bobbi).  She brings class and confidence to the former and nightclub singer allure to the latter.  While she sings with determination and sincerity as Gabby  (“It Needs Work”) and with sultry swells and swings as Bobbi (“With Every Breath I Take”), Ms. Taylor is the one cast member who sometimes tends to over-sing on her sustained notes, too often going just a bit flat (hopefully due to opening night excitement/jitters and a problem that soon will be corrected).

While this cast is memorable in so many respects, it is the Creation Team whose contributions will surely be recounted far into theatregoers’ futures.  Bill English shines twice as a star in this production.  His scenic design is mind-blowing, with a mammoth movie screen set resting about four feet from the stage floor (and surrounded by appropriate spotlights) and a ‘real-time’ series of scenes that silently, quickly revolve through the narrow opening to emerge with characters from the Hollywood story somehow bent over out of harm’s way, with audience members amazed no one is decapitated in the process.  And as director, Bill English has imagined and engineered multiple feats of magic to help this complicated, duo-story with its double/triple castings all stay clear and on pace.  Particularly remarkable is the director’s choice how to bring the play to a close, adding a movie-based trick involving the entire cast to ensure the real-life story comes to an ending understandable, happy, and somewhat feasible. 

Coming to Bill English’s aid are eye-popping costumes by Melissa Torchia and artistic flourishes by wig and make-up designer, Tabbitah McBride.  (How does she get those women’s lips to be that deeply red?)  Theodore J. H. Hulsker creates projections that establish locations, times, moods, and memories of the movies of yesteryear.  Michael Oesch’s lighting and Mr. Hulsker’s sound add sparkles, spots, and sensation in both the visual and audible dimensions.  Finally, the ever-accomplished, much-admired Dave Dobrusky once again brings to a Bay Area stage musical direction that sings with sweet sounds as he directs a magnificent, right-out-of-the-swing-era orchestra of eleven (including, of course, himself on piano).

Once again as in the past dozen-plus years, San Francisco Playhouse is insuring that there will not be a summer drought in the theatre world of the City.  In fact, this is a company that annually knows how to bring back a musical from the past, pump it with new pizzazz, and let it spread its summer sunshine, no matter how foggy August becomes. 

Rating: 5 E

City of Angels continues through September 17, 2016 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

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