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Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

What Who Framed Roger Rabbit did for cartoons City of Angels does for musical comedy: take a style characterized by lightness and color and smash it into the darkest and moodiest of movie genres, film noir, and its even darker sources, the novels of such writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. While City of Angels hilariously spoofs the tough-guy melodramas of the 1940s--The Maltese Falcon, Farewell, My Lovely, and their ilk--it also honors their ethos: hard-bitten yet romantic, cynical yet idealistic, offering a deeply moral response to the amoral world depicted.

That the show's blend of humor and heart works is due partly to a punchy, tuneful big-band score by Cy Coleman and David Zippel--crackling with jazz riffs, torrid torch-song melodies, and cool, close-knit harmonies. But even more important is Larry Gelbart's ingenious script, which interweaves two parallel stories: one about a writer's crisis of conscience, the other the murder mystery he's creating for his first-ever film assignment. In City of Angels, the novelist-turned-scenarist Stine not only talks to his characters but argues with them--then recycles their words in his script. When he rewrites dialogue, the characters replay their scenes backward before proceeding with the new material. And key events in Stine's offscreen world find their way onto the screen in a form more pleasing to him: annoyed at his director for making changes in his screenplay, for instance, Stine arranges for the movie to have a scene in which a director is murdered. (Both directors are played by the same actor; double casting is a major element here, as is the visual scheme: Stine's world is in living color, but the mystery-story scenes are in black and white.)

Beyond its clever structure, City of Angels profits from Gelbart's selective exaggeration of the hallmarks of noir writing--dry irony, terseness, unlikely metaphors, and a fondness for grotesque characters, sexual ambivalence, and double entendres--and the excesses of the movie industry, every bit as corrupt as the world of deception, betrayal, and blackmail encountered by Stine's private-eye protagonist, Stone. ("LA, truth to tell, is not much different than a pretty girl with the clap," Stone deadpans.) The result is an apt offering in these days of the "Heidiwood" scandal--the rumors and revelations surrounding the arrest of alleged "Hollywood madam" Heidi Fleiss. Though there's no direct connection between Gelbart's 1989 Broadway musical and today's Heidi chronicles, both portray a Hollywood almost ridiculously rife with sexual and financial intrigue and hypocrisy.

Down the mean streets of such a world, wrote Raymond Chandler in his essay "The Simple Art of Murder," must walk a man "who is neither tarnished nor afraid." Even while City of Angels makes us laugh, it also can touch us with its portrayal of one such man--who exists only in fiction--and the very tarnished, very fearful guy behind the typewriter, whose clumsy struggle to preserve his shredded integrity drives both plots.

Gary Griffin's staging for the red-plush-and-gilt-edged Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace theater ("the sort of place where you have to wear a shirt," as Claire Trevor said to Dick Powell in the movie version of Farewell, My Lovely) comes closer to the serious underpinnings of Gelbart's script than did last year's Broadway touring production at the Auditorium. Griffin's main resource is actor Larry Yando, whose interesting performance brings out Stine's neurotic, self-recriminating panic. Yando's edge would be sharper, however, if it cut against a more charismatic Stone; unfortunately, stolid Brian Robert Mani is functional at best. But strong support comes from other members of the large ensemble, including Jonathon Weir as filmmaker Buddy Fidler; Kathy Jaeck as Stine's wife Gabby; Kathy Taylor as Stone's seductive client Alaura and Michelle Duffy as her torrid teenage daughter Mallory; Dale Morgan as on-screen detective Manny Munoz (whose rage at racial prejudice in Stine's novel is turned into mundane jealousy in Fidler's film, just as Raymond Chandler's attacks on social injustice were censored in movies); Robert Mason as crooner Jimmy Powers, enlisted to play Stone on-screen just as singer Dick Powell changed his image by playing Chandler's Philip Marlowe (Mason looks amusingly like Mickey Rooney here); and especially Nancy Voigts, who as Stine's secretary and sometime-girlfriend Donna and her cinematic alter ego Oolie brings down the house with the brassy ballad "You Can Always Count on Me."

Bolstering the performances is some superb singing by the vocal quartet Hearsay (Bob Byrd, Jeff Church, Susan Shuler, and Julie DiTomassi), who are nimbly articulate and precise in the score's numerous backup vocals; there's also some crisp horn playing from the (unfortunately invisible) orchestra directed by Tom Sivak. Frances Maggio provides pleasing period costumes, effectively highlighted by Chris Phillips's alternately colorful and monochromatic lighting.

The only real flaw--but it's a doozy--is Griffin and set designer Tom Ryan's decision to try to approximate Robin Wagner's complex Broadway set: this stage can't handle so many pieces. The result is a series of clunky, noisy scene changes that too often intrude on Gelbart's biting dialogue. A less bulky, more fluid approach would have better suited Drury Lane's capabilities while giving the show the cinematic quality it needs.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolock.

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