BWW Review: North Coast Rep Spoofs Smoking Guns, Smoking-Hot Blondes
What could be more pleasurable than to ponder a whodunit against the background of a musical merry-go-round? With a book by Scott Wentworth, music and lyrics from Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler, and direction by North Coast veteran theatrical performer Andrew Barnicle, the San Diego premiere of Gunmetal Blues at North Coast Repertory Theatre showcased a Los Angeles crew of first-rate actors who thoroughly enjoyed bouncing plot lines and ballads off of each other.
On a small scale but delivered with huge aplomb, Gunmetal kept the audience giggling at glib one-liners and riveted to the skillful cast's renditions of Bohmler's sardonic yet soulful ballads and lively ensemble pieces set to Adler's razor-sharp lyrics.
But the evening wasn't just about rapid-fire jocularity and musical antics. This sendup of 1940s film noir regaled the audience with an inspirational message: in spite of life's pain and loss, love still surmounts all - or at least the possibility exists.
Wentworth, who wears many fedoras as a director, actor and playwright, has teamed with Bohmler and Adler on both Gunmetal (off-Broadway premiere in 1992) and Enter The Guardsman (1997 premiere in London's West End, Olivier nomination for Best New Musical). Their synergy was well defined in this collaboration.
Knowledgeable and experienced in directing Shakespeare, Ibsen, and other significant dramatists, Wentworth's skill as a writer of books for musicals clearly served him well in Gunmetal. Without diverging from the noir formula, he created a well-paced, clever series of tableaux that amusingly interweaved quirky dialogue with believable depictions of the characters' life crises. Hardly a moment passed without some whimsical or ironic declaration. He adhered to the formula without being formulaic - at best a difficult task.
Bohmler's history of writing musicals, operas (companies in Houston, San Jose and Arizona have commissioned his works) and orchestral compositions was shown to great advantage in a combination of recitative-like rap-plus-dialogue musical conversations between characters and expertly crafted ensembles. The work resembled a jazz-infused chamber opera, with music that was attention getting: Kurt Weill meets Rachmaninoff, with both of them getting the Blues. "Don't Know What I Expected" was a definite highlight: both charming and poignant.
As an award-winning lyricist, Adler has become well known throughout the US. She seemed to be channeling the ghost of Noël Coward with lyrics that communicated the characters' predicaments and flaws, each of them coming across as plausible, relatable and sympathetic. Her inventive, ingenious lyrics showed that unmistakably Adler loves words every bit as much as Bohmler loves notes.
Given Director Andrew Barnicle's unforgettable performance in last season's Faded Glory at North Coast Rep, it was not surprising that he could knit together all of the musical and comic/dramatic threads with such expertise. Equally knowledgeable in directing comedy and drama, he kept the pacing constant without its feeling rushed. The actors in their multiple roles played off one another in such a way that their comic hyperboles seemed utterly believable: comedy, after all, is about exaggeration (and pain - mostly other people's).
As Piano Player Buddy and other smaller-role eccentric types, Music Director Jeffrey Rockwell provided the glue to hold the structure of the plot and characters together. Always called upon as the Greek chorus-like commentator, he helped keep the scenes lively and quick-paced. Even in his most irate stances, he remained totally appealing, winningly resorting to playing it again - for Sam.
Multitalented Broadway and off-Broadway veteran Kevin Bailey, as Sam, the classically Bogey trench-coated Private Eye, rattled off his over-the-top noir dialogue descriptions with a combination of irony and bemusement. At times his manner and charm were reminiscent of Chandler in the TV sitcom standard, Friends. Despite his foibles, Sam came off as thoroughly sympathetic, capable of eliciting compassion from audience members who might be every bit as jaded as he has become from all the rotten circumstances he has suffered in his hard-hitting life journey.
Sharon Rietkerk, in her North Coast debut, clearly was the rising star in this production. She mingled her classical and operatic vocal background, combining great beauty of voice with turns in straight acting to create the sultry blonde Carol, the prickly but alluring Laura, and most engagingly the underdog Princess, all of whom were charmingly appealing and intriguing. No matter how bleak the world surrounding her, she lit up the stage dramatically, comedically and vocally. The heat between her and Bailey was persuasive enough that the spectator could almost imagine a true love relationship and happy ending for the couple.
The able musical ensemble included Matt Best, Tom Versen and Fred Ubaldo (Woodwinds, Drums/Percussion and Bass, respectively). Best's turn on stage as a soulful sax player was a winning moment.
The always-adept team of Scenic Designer Marty Burnett, Lighting Designer Matt Novotny, Costume Designer Alina Bokovikova and Scenic Artist John Finkbiner embody what a truly effective Repertory company should be all about. Added to their squadron for this production were Sound Designer Chris Luessman and LA Casting Director Terry Berland, who assembled this sparkling cast.
Like Laura and Sam's first encounter, Gunmetal Blues did not disappoint the opening night sold-out crowd. The mystery of getting tickets for Gunmetal Blues can be solved at: https://tickets.northcoastrep.org/TheatreManager/1/login&event=705. The production has been extended through Sunday, Feb. 15.
Photo credits: North Coast Rep