Chicago Theatre Review
The Real World Meets the Reel World
City of Angels – Marriott Theatre
Cy Coleman and David Zippel knew what they were doing when they composed the score for Larry Gelbart’s sassy homage to film noir motion pictures and Hollywood screenwriters of the 1940’s. Two stories play side-by-side in this 1990 Tony Award-winner for Best Musical, book and score. The first spotlights Stine, a popular writer of detective stories who’s been butting heads with a movie producer/director over artistic integrity; the second features a private detective named Stone, a product of Stine’s imagination, and the character the author’s created for his successful series of books. Both men experience woman problems while being pushed around by a bevy of bullies, thugs and criminals. In Nick Bowling’s stellar staging, one of the best productions the Marriott’s created in recent years, the real world meets the reel world in an exciting musical melding that celebrates those wonderful B-movies from Hollywood’s Golden Era.
As always, the Marriott challenges its collaborative artistic team to magically adapt this typically proscenium-staged production into an intimate, in-the-round experience. What works especially well in Bowling’s reimagined vision for this show is his understanding of film. He salutes cinematic style while still creating a musical for the stage. Yes, the show’s about the movie industry; and yes, half of the story is devoted to the writing of the screenplay, while the other half is the film itself. But the musical is staged as if it were being seen through the eye of camera. There’s a distinct feeling of both camera closeups and wide angle shots, fast cuts and slow dissolves. Bowling’s affinity for close communication, enjoyed so often in his productions at TimeLine Theatre, is what defines this presentation.
The musical is actually two plays performed simultaneously, each half seasoned with cool jazz, cheeky character songs and smart, richly romantic ballads. Even Cy Coleman’s incidental music, which is lush and plentiful, is the sound of film noir. It’s bluesy and saxophone-heavy, with slow, easy percussion and bass. Just listening to the score will evoke the era of “The Big Sleep” and “The Maltese Falcon.” The artistry found in this production is challenging and far-reaching. Because the Hollywood half of the story is happening in the real world it’s depicted in vibrant color, but the film half of the musical is cloaked all in black, white and 50 or more shades of gray. Nancy Missimi’s stunningly gorgeous period costumes, as well as Thomas M. Ryan’s evocative sets (including a vertical skylight) capture the look and feel of the era. The walls of the auditorium are lined with illuminated movie posters from the 40’s and 50’s. Jesse Klug was challenged to design a lighting plot that would both compliment these two very different color schemes while illuminating the actors. In every respect, this is an artistic achievement.
But it doesn’t end with the visuals. Nick Bowling has moved this show along at a fast clip, pausing every so often to linger over a subtle moment of romance and reflection. His cast is top-notch in every way. As Stine, Rod Thomas is one of several examples of perfect casting in this production. Playing the screenwriter who has a tough time standing up for what he believes in adapting his novel for film, Mr. Thomas creates a determined, straightforward author earnestly trying to balance his rocky personal relationships with a stressful writing career. Mr. Thomas, always a terrific presence in every show he’s in, has never sounded finer, effortlessly permitting his rich baritone to caress every note and lyric. Stine’s 11th hour number, “Funny,” is a musical soliloquy that sticks with the audience long past the final curtain. Paired with Kevin Earley as Stone, the smart-mouthed gumshoe with a knack for ticking off the wrong people, we have some incredible singing. The handsome Mr. Stone’s a chick magnet, and Mr. Earley plays that up with his relaxed, confident manner. His double-entendre delight, “The Tennis Song,” sung with the always wonderful, beauteous and talented Summer Naomi Smart, is a shrewd and tasteful piece of musical seduction. Earley and Thomas share the best song of the night, however, the one everyone leaves humming: “You’re Nothing Without Me.” This hummable, humorous musical dialogue is an unapologetic ode to one-upmanship, self-promotion and unmitigated ego.
As mentioned, Summer Naomi Smart is stunning, deliciously sexy and always knows how to sell a song. She plays both Carla, the wife of movie producer/director Buddy Fidler (Gene Weygandt in another scenery-chewing role that almost steals the show), as well as the sultry Alaura Kingsley, the mysterious dame who hires Stone to find her missing stepdaughter. The lovely and talented Danni Smith impresses in her Marriott debut playing Gabby, Stine’s supercritical, often neglected wife, and Bobbi, Stone’s on-again, off-again girlfriend, lounge singer and aspiring actress. In both roles, Ms. Smith shows audiences unfamiliar with her talent the creamy, golden voice that’s earned her so many Jeff Awards, in shows like “The Wild Party” and “Passion.” Ms. Smith’s performance of the moving ballad, “With Every Breath You Take,” as well as her energetic duet, “What You Don’t Know About Women,” with the glowing, glamorous Meghan Murphy, should elevate this talented young actor to Chicago’s musical A-list. The voluptuous Ms. Murphy skillfully takes on the roles of both Buddy’s sexy secretary, Donna, and Stone’s girl-Friday, Oolie. The actor’s duet with herself, “You Can Always Count on Me,” is one more clever highlight of this production, and Bowling has staged it smartly.
The ensemble is exceptional and brims with talent. Beginning with the tight harmonics of the production’s Greek chorus, the Angel City 4, this quartet is comprised of the musically gifted Elizabeth Lanza, Cassie Slater, Patrick Lane and Michael Mahler. They pop up everywhere, commenting with their Doo-wop sound. Erin McGrath as both blond bombshell actress Avril Raines and missing stepdaughter Mallory Kingsley, offers a sultry rendition of “Lost and Found” that’s playfully naughty. Devin DeSantis gets to portray a Frank Sinatra-like crooner named Jimmy Powers, joining the Angels at the microphone for “Stay With Me.” Gabriel Ruiz, another Marriott newcomer, is a standout in the double-cast roles of Officer Munoz and movie star Pancho Vargas. His Latin patter song, “All You Have to Do is Wait,” is a definite crowdpleaser.
Nick Bowling has infused his wonderful production of this seldom-seen musical with snap, crackle and pop along with a fresh, playfully naughty spirit. The show offers a pallet of smooth jazz and vibrant energy, enough to delight every film and musical theatre enthusiast. The Marriott design team has once again surpassed itself, sending this sophisticated show right into the lap of its audience and making this production feel like a true film noir detective movie. With a large, captivating cast, supported by Patti Garwood’s stellar, talented orchestra, every song and every line is delivered with style and elegance, creating the theatrical equivalent of a strong, dry martini with just a twist of bitter lemon.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 10-August 2 by the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire, IL.
Tickets are available by calling 847-634-0200 or by going to www.marriotttheatre.com. Dinner theatre packages are available on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
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