The West End’s hottest music theatre stars shine in a production as ingenious as the source material.
City of Angels features the rarity of a jazz-infused score, with music by Cy Coleman and crisp, witty lyrics by David Zippel. Larry Gelbart’s intricate, highly amusing book for this 1989 musical is far more intelligent than pretty much anything currently seen, or likely to be seen, on Broadway today.
Successful crime novelist Stine may control his lead character, Private Eye Stone, in his books, but movies are a whole other business. Stine battles studio interference and female distractions, but his greatest challenge may come from his very own creation, as Stone becomes ever more confident in his value.
Director Josie Rourke has respected audience intelligence whilst also ensuring the complex double-barreled plot is clear and accessible. Robert Jones’ dual-level set is backed by a wall of manuscripts towering over a wall of movie reels. Stine’s movie plays out in monochromatic film noir tones while the real world goes on in colour. Judiciously used projections show Stine’s type-written text, a device that allows for humorous moments when the deletion of text causes the cast to move and talk backwards as the scene is “rewound.” Another clever touch is the dynamic tussle between colour and grayscale as Stone and Stine battle it out in act one finale “You’re Nothing Without Me.”
Each of Stone’s fictional screen characters are based on characters in his real life, providing a range of delicious dual roles for the cast, and audience, to enjoy. Stone’s helpful assistant Oolie is based on ambitious studio secretary Donna (Rebecca Trehearn). Stine’s forthright wife Gabby is the inspiration for Stone’s past lover Bobbi (Rosalie Craig). The director’s wife Carla plays alluring femme fatale Alaura (Katherine Kelly). Vacant starlet Avril Raines plays the mysterious Mallory (Samantha Barks).
The casting of this formidable quartet of leading ladies is quite a luxury, and the combination of their talents, the close proximity of the intimate Donmar stage and Jones’ delectable, distinctive costume designs mean that the complex dual narrative has never been clearer. Each of these actresses gives a superb performance, and all appear to be thoroughly enjoying the gorgeously feminine 1940s dresses, wigs and make-up.
Craig nails two of the very best ballads: Bobbi’s sensuous torch song “With Breath You Take” and Gabby’s snippy number “It Needs work.” Barks purrs through Mallory’s kittenish vamp “Lost and Found.” Kelly enjoys Alaura’s double entrendres in “The Tennis Song.” Trehearn gives a knowing wink in Oolie and Donna’s swinging, pre-feminism ditty “You Can Always Count On Me.”
The male leads are just as strong. With so many stars in the one show, it actually seems incredible that the rest of the West End is still operating. Hadley Fraser is scruffily lovable as Stine, and his singing is a dream. Tam Mutu embodies Stine’s dream version of himself as Stone, a bit taller and broader, with matinee idol cleft chin and wavy hair. Masculine actor Mutu is highly believable as the hard-bitten, fast-loving private eye.
Peter Polycarpou scores plenty of laughs as blustering studio chief Buddy Fidler. Marc Elliott, as bitter police detective Munoz, brings down the house with his big number “All Ya Have To Do Is Wait.”
Coleman’s music, as played by a swinging band of eleven, sounds wonderful, and a cast recording would be a joy.
This is music theatre at its very finest. Watch out for a West End transfer (if the incredible, in-demand cast can possibly be kept together).
City of Angels plays at Donmar Warehouse, London until 7 February 2015.
City of Angels was reviewed 2pm Saturday 17 January 2015
Photos: Jonah Persson