Theater Works in Peoria has another hit in the sassy, sexy “City of Angels” musical comedy it opened last night. The smoldering 1989 Tony Awardee that spoofs the film noir genre of detective crime stories made by Hollywood in the 1950s presents a mob of technical and talent challenges to which Theater Works responded with quirky creativity.
Groaning wit and painful puns abounded throughout the evening’s lightning lyrics by David Zippel and the Larry Gelbart dialogue. The storyline and most cast members are double, being that the audience jumps back and forth between the life of a struggling novelist/screenplay writer, Stine (Ian Christianson), and his fictional gumshoe detective, Stone (Matt Zimmerer). Practice not blinking before you arrive. There were precious few throw away lines, and to the capable cast’s credit, almost none went by the way side.
It’s a crime, but an understandable one, that the smart book and jazzy Cy Coleman score aren’t more often heard. Unlocking the show for the Phoenix Valley included putting out a contract on vocalists that sung the sin out of some super sophisticated jazz sextet music. Note that the vocal music, scintillating as it was, was secondary to Musical Director Steve Hilderbrand’s smoking 14-piece onstage jazz combo that just kept getting hotter.
That sound production and balance was just a portion of the technical puzzles this production solved. Though some of the narration didn’t carry very well over the music, the lyrics almost always did. How do crystalline words consistently soar over a rocking stage-ful of musicians? Just a few feedback issues growled in the background now and again.
The set, costumes and lighting also had a well-executed dual plan. All the fun film noir scenes were in black, white and grey tones, while Stine’s interactions with the Hollywood folks were in splashy technicolor. And the steamy, sassy plot demanded a bed come off and onstage for countless covert romps–in both sultry shadows and living color–which remarkably came off without a hitch.
The mastermind behind the jailbreak production was Director Philip Fazio, who sowed his younger wild theatre oats in Arizona before re-locating to New York to grow his career. Fazio, on this Valley return trip, helped the production tiptoe between some fine theatrical lines.
For instance, “City of Angels” satirizes the gumshoe novel genre and the shallow, prejudice, greedy movie industry that capitalized on it. What could have come off as ranting was instead lively, laughable humor. Rather than sinking beneath a heavy-handed social statement, we giggled at the absurd lengths to which the McCarthy-age movie industry stooped. By way of line re-writes indicated with strobe light effects as the movie reel rewound, with the actors moving backwards, we witnessed how glamorizing, sanitizing and romanticizing Stone’s character reduced him and the story to nothing but handsome stereotype.
The cleverly delivered message brings us to the Theater Works cast of criminals and the characters trying to help and hinder them. When fictional protagonist Stone came to life, so did a host of other principal characters. Being they’re all borne of Stine’s imagination, many mirror the people in Stine’s real life, hence the dual roles.
It became clear early on that Stone (Zimmerer) was comprised of not just private eye stereotypes, but of all that Stine believes and hopes he himself is. Zimmerer’s blundering bravado carried the evening, and most the supporting cast rose to the performance bar he set.
Then the real fun brimmed right over when Stone at last confronted author Stine, while his character was getting edited into obscurity. A hilarious typewriter duel ensued as fictional character duked it out with browbeaten screenwriter. Priceless insults combined with goosebump harmony as the two hurled literary cheap shots in their duet, “You’re Nothing Without Me.”
As the show developed, the artsy meat and societal commentary were being wrung dry from Stine’s novel by unscrupulous, crass Hollywood movie producer Buddy Fidler (Hector Coris). Buddy, under the best worst toupee known to man, in one scene shouted the criticism at Stine that “Flashbacks… are a thing of the past!”
Coris slickly slithered through messy metaphors while slashing Stine’s novel to shreds. “No one gets a hole in one their first time at bat,” he condescended (to which Stine wryly responded, ‘That’s a ballgame of a different color.’). The only thing admirable about Buddy’s ethics or character in Peoria last night was that Coris loaned Buddy his own outstanding voice and musicianship.
Eventually, Stine was fed up enough to kill off Irwin (also played by Coris), the movie character who bore a striking similarity to Buddy. In one of the evening’s most clever technical conversions, a scene closed with Irwin’s corpse on a gurney and seconds later the next scene opened with Buddy raging against Stine yet again, on a gurney-turned-massage table.
In a show filled with excellent performances a couple more should be singled out. Alanna Kalbfleisch doubled as detective agency assistant Oolie and movie producer secretary Donna. Her best of many moments was Oolie’s Act II solo “You Can Always Count on Me.” With lyrics like ‘I go for the riff-raff whose treating me so-so. When I can play the second fiddle I’m a virtuoso,’ she was a bittersweet kind of funny that persisted. In addition, Rob Allocca as Munoz handled most of the show’s scant serious lines with as much savvy skill as he did a gleeful, slap-stick number “All You Have to do is Wait” when the band leader cued the castanets.
“City of Angels” at Peoria’s Theater Works. It would be a crime to miss it.