City of Angels
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by David Zippel
Book by Larry Gelbart
Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham Street, London WC2H 9LX
Until February 7, 2015
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Like wallowing in a special issue of Vanity Fair, this production just oozes luxury and glamour from every corner. Each element is top class and yet it doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole because, as in 1993, this show remains rather hollow at its centre. You admire it but you’re never moved. The songs, some of which are eminently catchy, lose impact because they appear curiously foreshortened as if not to delay the plot. That transcendental ride therefore that only a musical can provide doesn’t happen and numbers don’t catch fire.
The problem rests totally with the material rather than its treatment. A Weil or a Sondheim might have got under the skin of a piece which has to take on the dark nihilism of Film Noir and combine it with the added burden of a framing device about the travails of a Hollywood screenwriter. Sadly Cy Coleman’s zippy jazz score just isn’t the right fit. Swinging from pastiche to pulling at the heartstrings is a tall order and Zippel’s often workmanlike lyrics and Larry Gelbart’s wisecracks merely add to the confusion of tone, something fatal for a musical. We lose interest in the characters. Typically, in one scene our hero gets beaten to a pulp whilst radio singers do a number around him. It’s as if Polanski threw dancing girls into Chinatown.
The book interweaves two plots: the real world of the 40’s Hollywood screenwriter Stine (Hadley Fraser in fine voice) who is trying to turn his novel into a screenplay and the “reel” world his character Stone (Tam Mutu), a Chandler’esqe Private Investigator (think Humphrey Bogart) who is hired by a glamorous rich woman, ostensibly to find her step daughter, but actually to ‘deal’ with her much older and invalided husband. At certain moments Stine wittily knocks the movie action into ‘Rewind’, and the actors comply, as he re–writes lines of dialogue.
What is clever too is that everyone in this large cast plays dual roles that comment on and reflect on each other so, for example, Oolie, the wisecracking secretary to the PI is played by the same actor who plays Donna, the assistant to the film producer in ‘real life’. In the screenplay Oolie is in love with Stone but it is unrequited, though as Donna she has an affair with Stine. As you’d imagine, tying up plot strands for all this makes Act Two sag a bit.
The cast though are uniformly magnificent. Mutu has the square–jawed virility of a Burt Lancaster and Rosalie Craig (Gabby/Bobbi) might have just walked straight off the 1940s silver screen. Katherine Kelly is the ultimate femme fatale (Carla/Alaura) and Samantha Barks just totally sizzles as the blonde young Avril/Mallory – ‘trouble’ in platinum. Peter Polycarpou is perfectly slimy as the garrulous Studio Boss but the standout is Rebecca Trehearn (Donna/Oolie), who has the look and the sass and the comic timing of a Hollywood great.
Robert Jones imposing split–level set and Howard Harrison’s lighting simply astonish too. We switch from dappled monochrome for the movie scenes to glorious Technicolor of the ‘real life’ ones and as Stone and Stine do battle there’s an accompanying battle of chiaroscuro! Finally, the only thing more glamorous than the femmes fatales on display here are the costumes Jones created for them. Go and wallow.