By Charles Brousse
Last week’s theater column explored the virtues of Ross Valley Players’ Robin Hood, a locally produced, low-priced, summer entertainment for kids that also could appeal to adults in the family. But, if you’re OK with the kids staying home—or don’t have any, and don’t mind the travel and additional expense, I suggest that you head across the Golden Gate to the San Francisco Playhouse, which just opened its own summer show, City of Angels.
Take my word for it—this is live theater at its best: An inspired combination of a sophisticated script and musical score with inventive staging and outstanding performances, backed by one of the best jazz bands around. The complete package. Yes, I realize that I’m gushing a bit. City of Angels isn’t an icon of Western civilization. But for what it is—a late-stage American musical comedy that broke new ground when it was introduced on Broadway in 1989, and ended up winning no less than six Tony Awards (including the coveted Best Musical)—both the show itself and the quality of the production by a company of this size are huge achievements.
Given its illustrious launch and the established reputations of Angel’s original creative team of Cy Coleman (score), David Zippel (lyrics) and Larry Gelbart (book), one wonders why there have been so few revivals.
I think most of the problems derive from the show’s unique structure. Although several major musicals have internal dream sequences—Oklahoma, Carousel and Brigadoon immediately come to mind—none that I know of has two separate stories running simultaneously from beginning to end. One almost mirrors the other, and the protagonists in each have similar names. Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) is a successful fiction writer who is working on a detective novel entitled City of Angels. Stone (Brandon Dahlquist) is the novel’s anti-hero private eye. Against his wife Gabby’s (Caitlan Taylor) advice, Stine allows himself to be lured to Hollywood by promises of fame and riches by hard-boiled producer Buddy (Ryan Drummond) if he will convert the unfinished fiction into a film noir. To quiet his misgivings about being forced to lower his artistic standards, he’s also promised complete control of the content.
That’s where the fur begins to fly as Stine comes face to face with Hollywood’s loose moral code, a process that infects both his screenplay and his personal life. Director Bill English, who doubles as his own scenic designer, makes the continuous transitions feel completely seamless by positioning Stine’s “real” life downstage on the apron, while the movie he’s writing develops in a large upstage false perspective enclosure that has sound designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s shifting location projections on its rear wall and old-style film sprocket holes that can be moved up or down as changes require, on either side. Whether called for in the musical’s original script or not, it’s an ingenious answer to the play-within-a-play dilemma.
As for another of City of Angels’ special production demands, it’s not often that a large-cast musical requires all performers to excel at both singing and acting. But in this case, it’s absolutely essential because the jazzy songs that advance the plot aren’t easy to pull off. Somehow, casting director Lauren English succeeds. There isn’t a weak voice in the entire acting ensemble. The close harmony sung by the group Angel City 4, directed by Dave Dobrusky, is a joy to listen to, and the unseen jazz band provides a lively accompaniment throughout.
Besides its high-entertainment quotient, City of Angels transcends the usual noir format by raising important questions about the difficulty of making (and keeping to) moral choices, on screen or off, in environments that reward the opposite. There’s also a nod to the existential isolation that Stine and his alter ego Stone feel. And there’s even a philosophical undertone about whether art mimics life, or vice versa.
As I said earlier, it’s the complete package.
NOW PLAYING: City of Angels runs through September 17 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.