BWW Review: CITY OF ANGELS at THE ARTS AT ANGELORIA'S
It never ceases to amaze me how prolific and creative the theatrical community is here in Connecticut. With 80 + theatrical companies (at my last count) in the state, you don't have to go far to take in some amazing theatre. From professional, equity houses to community theatres, the variety, and unique offerings from each company is truly amazing. And speaking of unique offerings, I had the pleasure of attending my first performance at The Arts at Angeloria's in Southington for their production of Larry Gelbart, Cy Coleman, and David Zippel's musical CITY OF ANGELS, which also served as the premiere production in their new 100-seat "Art Barn." For those familiar with the musical, you will know that this is not an easy show to mount, especially in a smaller theatrical space. But for the company who performed THE WHO'S TOMMY in their small 50-seat black box space, if anyone was up to it, they were. As for CITY OF ANGELS? It is a valiant attempt with some high points that mostly overshadow any challenges that come from the limitations of the space.
CITY OF ANGELS is, by itself, a unique musical. First, it is driven by an amazing jazz score by Cy Coleman that captures the feeling of 1940's Los Angeles perfectly. The musical tells the dual story of a detective novelist, Stine (Rick Fountain) who is converting one of his books for the golden age Hollywood big screen. Like many writers tasked with this challenge before (and after him) Stine is struggling with the desire to stay true to his book while pleasing the film studio director/producer, Buddy Fidler (Ed Hobson). Add, on top of that, struggles with his marriage to Gabby (Ashley McLeod) and you have real theatrical conflict. But the interesting twist in CITY OF ANGELS, is that the audience also sees the film (in Black and White, of course) as Stine is writing it - the gruff gumshoe, Stone (Ed Rosenblatt), his girl Friday, Oolie (Katherine Loy), and the many denizens of seedy, Film Noir, LA. Characters in the film are "inspired" by people in Stine's life (e.g., his wife Gabby inspires the lounge singer and love of Stone, Bobbi, etc.) and are thus played by the same actor/actress in the play. It sounds complicated, but it is quite an interesting and effective way of illustrating the connections between these two worlds. Speaking of connections, over the course of the play, we see the direct effect of Stine's writing on the action in the film, culminating in an exciting collision of the two worlds at the end of Act I and a "Hollywood ending" to close the show.
In terms of the performances, the cast does a solid job bringing these characters to life on the stage, with some standouts worth noting. First, as the titular writer, Stine and his anti-hero, Stone, Rick Fountain and Ed Rosenblatt embody their characters well. Mr. Rosenblatt captures the gravely, tough, and quick-witted Stone well. Mr. Fountain's Stine is appropriately flustered by his experience in Hollywood, and he shows off a strong singing voice in his various numbers. Lori Holm (the "Lori" in Angeloria - she is also the Artistic Director and Producer) does a good job playing the sultry Alaura Kingsley, the femme fatale of the film, and the very funny, and quite different Carla Haywood, the actress tasked with playing the role. Other performances worth noting are Steffon Sampson as Jimmy Powers, and Sophia Lily Cannavo as the missing girl (in the movie) Mallory Kingsley, and the ingenue actress portraying her, Avril Raines. Ms. Cannavo has the best number in the production, "Lost and Found" and shows off an amazing voice in her delivery of that show stopper.
Director Kate Luurtsema took a very challenging and complex staging and looked for ways to overcome the challenge, though the limited space and configuration of the stage do work against her. Due to this limited space, the set changes take a lot longer than intended, extending the length (and pacing) of the play (runtime when I attended was 3 hours and 25 minutes, including intermission). She has successfully drawn out good characterization from her actors and tries to separate the film world from the real world (though a few scenes did bleed into both - creating a bit of confusion.) Alan Dougherty does a great job as musical director (not an easy task with this play) and the orchestra is top notch, conducted by L. Colombatto who also served as choreographer. From a technical perspective, the lighting by Larch Purinton adds appropriate effect (especially the lightning and the strobe-fueled fight scene) and Christopher Zajac's sound design works for most of the show, though the evening I attended there were some distracting and noticeable mic issues. Christopher Zajac also serves as Technical Director and created a functional set with some nice touches (e.g., the back lit screens). The setting was a bit challenged by the configuration of the seating in the audience, making it impossible to see some of the more pivotal scenes that were staged on the floor. I would suggest the theatre invest in raking the audience seating a bit, or placing more action for future productions up on the stage. Finally, Debbie Cashman's costumes sufficiently capture the black and white world of the film and the technicolor world of real life, though a few bright colored costume pieces do, unfortunately, sneak into the film scenes, breaking the magic a bit.
Overall, The Arts at Angeloria's deserves praise for being brave enough to mount a musical like CITY OF ANGELS, a show that, unfortunately, does not get produced enough. And though there are a few challenges, this production captures the essence of the play and does so through a hard-working cast who looks like they are having a lot of fun. On a side note - this reviewer happened to perform in the first high school/amateur production of CITY OF ANGELS back in 1993 (we closed the International Thespian Conference that year in Muncie, Indiana), so it has a special place in my heart and it was so nice to spend a few hours with these characters once again. If you would like a unique evening of theatre, staged in an equally unique setting (the buildings and grounds of the theatre are beautiful and eclectic), then CITY OF ANGELS might be just the ticket.