STAGE REVIEW : 'City of Angels' Is Its Own Double Feature

TIMES THEATER CRITIC

Welcome home, "City of Angels."We've been waiting.

Where else but in Los Angeles could this musical about making movies be more thoroughly digested and enjoyed? And since book writer Larry Gelbart is a dyed-in-the-smog satirist who lives in L.A. to nurture his "firm grip on unreality" (he says), the spoofing in "City of Angels" is of the best kind: smartly self-deprecating.

The crowd at the Century City Shubert, where the show opened Wednesday, was audible proof. Heavily weighted as it was with industry types, it lapped up every laugh line. Roars of recognition greeted this Gelbart/Cy Coleman (music)/David Zippel (lyrics) double-edged spin on Chandleresque movies and its contextual portrait of a giddy, Kaufmanesque 1940s Hollywood. Here, in the rough-and-tumble universe of mogul Buddy Fidler--a composite Darryl F. Zanuck, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn--vulgarity, intrigue, innocence and heartbreak mingle in noisy free fall.

But "City of Angels" is more than just a caricature. It's a jigsaw puzzle. You've heard of plays within a play. This one has a movie within its play, and a lot of the pleasure of this show is derived from matching the Technicolor "reality" of the piece with the black-and-white fiction of its movie.

It's the story of a writer named Stine (Stephen Bogardus) who "goes Hollywood" by selling out to the overbearing machinations of studio head Fidler (Charles Levin). This precipitates the collapse of Stine's marriage to a much stronger woman named Gabby (Leslie Denniston), his coming to grips with his own failures of will and, as if that weren't enough, subjects him to the rebukes of the protagonist of his movie, a Philip Marlowesque alter-ego named Stone (James Naughton).

Confusing? Not really.

Granted that the line is forever fine between what's real and what isn't in Hollywood, the characters in this musical--the real Hollywood ones and the unreal movie ones--are well separated by costumer Florence Klotz and lighting designer Paul Gallo, who keep the film folks in B&W; and the Hollywood folks in living color.

Once that's established, the plot has all kinds of fun mixing it up, crossing the line with impunity to visit Stine's fantasies and frustrations on Stone and the other helpless characters of the screenplay.

All are modeled, of course, on the real-life people around Stine--including his wife, his boss, his boss's wife and especially his boss' secretary, the ever-pragmatic Donna (Randy Graff) with whom he spends extramarital time and to whom he gives a leading role in his movie. She's Stone's omniscient secretary, Oolie. Stine makes up for the lack of control he has on his life by exerting pure tyranny on the lives of his screenplay characters, even running the mental film backwards when he decides to change the script--a device that makes for great comic hiccups.

But there's a price to pay.

The casualties of all this funning and gaming are the show's musical aspects. They don't seem to stick. The Coleman score is catchy and pleasant, but only peripherally memorable--perhaps because it plays second fiddle (Fidler?) to the intricacy of the plot, whose sheer verve and inventiveness give the songs their best opportunities.

"What You Don't Know About Women" is a sharp duet sung by Stine's wife and Stone's secretary on separate sides of the stage in separate realities. "You're Nothing Without Me," the show's signature anthem sung by Stone and Stine, is a self-evident statement of power shared by a writer and his creation.

Only rarely does Gelbart indulge in such lines as "flashbacks are a thing of the past," but David Zippel's lyrics are more shamelessly inclined ("If you're not celibate/We can raise hell a bit"), though he deserves full credit for the luscious double-entendre in "The Tennis Song" and the split personality of "You Can Always Count on Me," Graff's best number.

Graff and Naughton, who both have Tonys and other awards to show for it, are undoubtedly the most well-adjusted to their attractive characters--she as the hard-working, loyal "other woman" who even in high school managed to connect, as she tells us, with the only married man there; he as your hard-living gumshoe, part savant, part jerk, and irresistible only to extra-good-looking women.

The rest of the cast is newer--and good. Bogardus gives plenty of vulnerability to his Stine, offering us the chance to experience his dilemma. Levin, if anything, brings more sheer Hollywood crass to the Fidler/Irwin S. Irving role than did Renee Auberjonois, who created it. Levin is earthy, raucous and thick.

Lauren Mitchell has plenty of oomph and nastiness as Fidler's wife (and villain of the movie). Karen Fineman is a Monroesque cartoon as the busty, airhead starlet Avril Raines (who plays a key role in the movie), while Denniston remains elusive in the show's toughest double assignment: that of Stone's torchy girlfriend in the movie and Stine's unhappy wife in life. But her rendition of "It Needs Work" is a strong statement.

Designer Robin Wagner's splendid sets slide, open, shut and create priceless trompe-l'oeil effects, underscoring the fact that, when the chips are down, "City of Angels," more than most musicals, belongs to all of its creators, not least to director Michael Blakemore, who seamlessly put it together. It's a collaboration, in which the book spills over into the music and lyrics and is enhanced by the design, but where the dominant sense of humor, unmistakably, is Gelbart's.

Now and forever. Only an Angeleno could poke such accurate fun at Hollywood. No wonder this show won a plethora of New York awards, including a Tony and New York Drama Critics award for best musical. For once, New York's inbred snobbery vis-a-vis Hollywood has paid off. Handsomely. "City of Angels," Shubert Theatre, 2020 Avenue of the Stars, Century City. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; matinees Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Indefinitely.$30-$50; (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes.

'City of Angels'

Actor Movie Cast James Naughton Stone Stephen Bogardus -- Charles Levin Irwin S. Irving Randy Graff Oolie Lauren Mitchell Alaura Kingsley Leslie Denniston Bobbi Joe Lala Munoz Andrew Husmann Peter Kingsley Jack Manning Luther Kingsley Karen Fineman Mallory Kingsley Sarah Tattersall Margaret Doug Carfrae Dr. Mandril Alvin Ing Yamato Robert Rod Barry Commissioner Gaines Darwyn Swalve Big Six Nick DeGruccio Sonny Bob Walton Jimmy Powers Jeffrey Rockwell Off. Pasco, orderly Jordan Leeds Mahony, orderly Anastasia Barzee Bootsie Kathy Garrick Madame

Actor Hollywood Cast James Naughton -- Stephen Bogardus Stine Charles Levin Buddy Fidler Randy Graff Donna Lauren Mitchell Carla Haywood Leslie Denniston Gabby Joe Lala Pancho Vargas Andrew Husmann Gerald Pierce Jack Manning Werner Kiregler Karen Fineman Avril Raines Sarah Tattersall Stand-in Doug Carfrae Barber Alvin Ing Cinematographer Robert Rod Barry Shoeshine Darwyn Swalve Studio cop Nick DeGruccio Studio cop Bob Walton Jimmy Powers Jeffrey Rockwell Gene Jordan Leeds -- Anastasia Barzee -- Kathy Garrick Masseuse, Hairdresser

Richard Kasper, Tampa Lann, Monica Mancini and Royce Reynolds The Angel City 4A Barry and Fran Weissler presentation of the Nick Vanoff, Roger Berlind, Jujamcyn Theaters, Suntory International Corp., Shubert Organization production. Presented in association with James and Maureen O'Sullivan Cushing. Associate producer Alecia Parker. Book Larry Gelbart. Music Cy Coleman. Lyrics David Zippel. Director Michael Blakemore. Sets Robin Wagner. Lights Paul Gallo. Costumes Florence Klotz. Sound Bernard S. Fox, Peter J. Fitzgerald. Musical direction Vincent Fanuele. Orchestrations Billy Byers. Vocal arrangements Cy Coleman, Yaron Gershovsky. Musical staging Walter Painter. Fight staging B.H. Barry. Production supervisor Steven Zweigbaum. Stage manager Scott Faris.

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