BWW Review: CITY OF ANGELS at Theatre Harrisburg
In the vast world of community theatre, the production of obscure musicals can often be a dangerous game. The unfamiliarity of the show tends to lend itself to smaller crowds and clouded expectations. From a performer's perspective, this can be both advantageous and inconvenient. While unknown characters provide more opportunity for creative liberties and interpretations, there is relatively little source material to draw from. However, from the perspective of an audience member, we are less likely to hold actors to certain standards of how a character is to be portrayed, because quite frankly, we're not too sure ourselves. In the case of CITY OF ANGELS at Theatre Harrisburg, the cast and crew have taken an exceptionally underground musical and crafted a performance that left the audience entertained from beginning to end, wondering why they'd never heard of it before.
CITY OF ANGELS was, in fact, a Broadway show that ran it's course on the Great White Way from 1989 to 1992 at the Virginia Theatre. Other productions opened in both Los Angeles and London's West End, and a national tour roamed the country in 1992. Despite it's recent obscurity, CITY OF ANGELS was the recipient of six Tony Awards in 1990, including Best Musical. Larry Gelbart clenched the Tony for Best Book of a Musical, and the show's composer and lyricist, Cy Coleman and David Zippel respectively, also took home the award for Best Original Score. Theatre Harrisburg's production of this lively and comedic show paid homage to the show's winning combination of two separate plots: that of a novelist-turned-scriptwriter struggling to chart his course through the sea of Hollywood, and that of the script he's writing, featuring a film noire detective who finds himself a bit over his head in his latest case. The majority of actors thus take on two roles as both the film characters and their real world counterparts. The talent displayed in this production makes Theatre Harrisburg somewhat of a hidden gem in the Central PA region.
The immediate standout performances come from the quartet called the Angel City 4, a group utilized throughout the show to add even more of a 1940's sound to an already authentic score. Consisting of Wendy J. Faust, Alanna Menser, Brandon Rexrode, and Andrew Vinton, this foursome consistently captivates the audience with their outstanding vocal blending and soulful performance. Their ease and energy onstage make each appearance one that the audience looks forward to, and easily marks them as some of the best in the show. Their songs such as "Ya Gotta Look Out for Yourself," "Ev'rybody's Gotta Be Somewhere," and "Stay With Me" easily emulate the doo-wop style of the time, and make the audience catch themselves tapping their toes along with them.
The show's leading ladies also contribute greatly to the quality of the overall production. Featuring Callie Alvanitakis as Carla Haywood/Alaura Kingsley, Becky Mease as Gabby/Bobbi, and Stephanie Walsh as Donna/Oolie, these women each bring their own brand of talent and vocal excellence to the show that makes it stand out from others in the area. Alvanitakis is an Alaura Kingsley that reeks of sophistication and cunning, knowing exactly what she wants and how to go about getting it. While occasionally over exaggerating the film-noire nature of this role, she easily compensates for this with vocal ability in songs such as "Double Talk" and "The Tennis Song," where she allows herself to exploit the mysterious Rich Woman persona common in many whodunit films. However, Alvanitakis seems much more natural in the role of real-world actress Carla Haywood.
Becky Mease stars as Gabby/Bobbi, the former being the wife of scriptwriter Stine while the latter acting as the love interest of the fictional detective Stone. Mease's Gabby shines as a self-made modern woman, one who is clearly comfortable in her world and who never shies away from speaking her mind. In contrast, her Bobbi is one that longs for stardom, and radiates a believable sadness when she does not ultimately get what she wants. Mease's performance was one that seems to resonate with the audience, as she consistently displays a range of genuine emotion accompanied by a stellar voice. Her songs, including "What You Don't Know About Women," "With Every Breath I Take," and "It Needs Work" nearly leave the audience in awe of the ease with which Mease performs, no matter which character she takes on.
Rounding out the host of female excellence is Stephanie Walsh, who tackles the roles of Oolie in the film world and Donna in the real one. While both are merely assistants to the leading men, each one is filled with the snark and attitude that seems to be characteristic of Walsh, a trait that makes her characters immensely enjoyable. She is no stranger to wit, and employs it effortlessly while also able to bring a sincerity to her characters that allows the audience to empathize with and care for the fate of each woman. Oolie's loyalty and Donna's cleverness mark them as two distinctly different characters, but Walsh handles the transition between them with ease. Her stage presence is of a unique kind, and is only enhanced by a rich, powerful voice that makes songs such as "What You Don't Know About Women" and "You Can Always Count On Me" an absolute treat.
While the women of CITY OF ANGELS tend to steal the stage, the production is not without it's share of male talent. A particularly commendable performance comes from Stosh Snyder as Lieutenant Munoz, Detective Stone's former partner who now can't wait to see him behind bars. Snyder displays perhaps the finest pacing and inflection of the show, adding an element of realism to his character that does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Even when Munoz undergoes a drastic change mid-scene, Snyder handles the transformation with an impressive ease. Additionally, Munoz's solo, "All Ya Have to Do is Wait," was by far one of the most comedic moments in the show and showed cased Snyder's diversity as an actor, although a bit more purposefully dramatic physical humor on his part would not have gone amiss.
Another stand-out character comes in the form of Darren Riddle as Buddy Fidler, a hot-shot Hollywood producer who has taken over the task of developing Stine's script. Buddy is wonderfully reminiscent of the swindler-in-a-penthouse trope, a man who already has it all but can't stop grasping for more. He is bursting with pompous righteousness and has showmanship to spare. Riddle radiates a confidence and comfortability on stage that aides the bold personality of his character and makes his performance all the more enjoyable to watch. His vocal ability was also well displayed in the song "The Buddy System," firmly marking Buddy's character as the furthest thing from modest as possible.
The show's two leading men, Stone and Stine, are portrayed by Curtis Mittong and Tim Wallace respectively. Stone is the fictional detective that is so common of the film noire genre, while Stine is the real world author who has created him. Mittong brings to the table a Stone who is smooth and no nonsense, but often seems stuck in a bit of a monotone for the majority of the show. Mittong has no problem displaying the cynical, hardened facade of Stone, but there are times when he appears to be just on the cusp of other emotion but can't quite reach it. He is not unfitting or untalented in his role, but could benefit from a bit more enthusiasm. Similar can be said of Stine as played by Tim Wallace. While always bringing an element of sincerity to his character, Wallace seems to lack a bit of the energy that would have made his performance all the more enjoyable. His Stine, however, was charmingly sweet and very clearly still possesses of bit of naivety that makes him even more vulnerable to Hollywood sharks such as Buddy Fidler. Stone and Stine make a very competent duo that entertain audiences with their interactions from two different worlds, shown especially in their duet, "You're Nothing Without Me." In fact, the dual nature of the show is what makes CITY OF ANGELS a production that deserves much more recognition.
Theatre Harrisburg's CITY OF ANGELS combines two different genres and two different worlds in a show that possesses a wealth of talent and is aided by a simple yet ornate set and smooth scene changes. The production is one that is vastly enjoyable, combining infectious tunes with impressive performances and clever humor that leave audiences laughing all the way to the end. It is a show for those with a thing for swing and a story that combines classic elements of show business with a new twist from the other side of the script.
Presented by Theatre Harrisburg at the Whitaker Center. Next is 4000 MILES. Visit theatreharrisburg.com.