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STAGE REVIEW : ‘City of Angels’: An Almost Heavenly Spoof : The idea may not be new, but the words and the music turn production at the Arts Center into very clever entertainment.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The wonder of “City of Angels” is in how its creators took such a seemingly tired idea and worked it into such clever entertainment.

Broadway veterans Larry Gelbart (who wrote the book), Cy Coleman (the score) and David Zippel (the lyrics) act as though they’re the first to consider spoofing ‘40s detective movies and the often ridiculous Hollywood system that spawned them. Their show, which won the 1990 Tony Award for best musical, tackles every cliche and stereotype, but avoids ending up with the sort of cliches and stereotypes that a lesser team might have given us.

Sure, many of their takes are shadowed by the familiar--the opening scene is so reminiscent of hard-boiled sendups of the Sam Spade school that you have to stifle a groan--but there’s a freshness of style in the anything-goes chance taking and verbal and visual playfulness that takes over.

That brio is clear in the production of “City of Angels” that opened Wednesday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Directed by Michael Blakemore and featuring much of the cast that appeared at the Shubert Theatre in Century City last summer, the traveling show was both assured and vigorous, tickling often with its lippy quips and winking tough talk.

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That is not to say that it makes for a perfect evening. “City of Angels” still hasn’t overcome the flaws that have dogged it since Broadway. The second act goes on too long, seeming anticlimactic after giddy Act I, and Coleman’s music continues to seem like an appendage at times.

It’s not a bad score (“You’re Nothing Without Me” is catchy in an archetypal musical theater way, and “The Tennis Song” is a sexy, punny hoot; Zippel knows how to turn a smart-silly phrase) but the plot’s intricate action, and getaway-quick pacing, muscles in on any interludes. Gelbart’s book (he was one of the creators of “MASH” and co-author of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”) plainly is the star.

The story is a double-take/double-vision number focusing on Stine (the nervy but sensitive Stephen Bogardus), a crime novelist caught in a pact with Hollywood to turn one of his books into a screenplay. While Stine toils, we see his mind at work, and the screenplay take shape, as his private eye and alter-ego Stone (Jeff McCarthy) moves through the usual torturous, Byzantine happenings of any crime story.

While Stone takes care of business, Stine is battling with an egomaniacal director (Charles Levin) who keeps changing Stine’s script and pushing him around with the kind of grinning, never-say-no manipulation that helped make the industry famous.

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Characters move in and out of both stories, but aren’t confusing. “City of Angels” shifts take advantage of Robin Wagner’s witty sets--the detective stuff is in a sort of black-and-white film noir, Stine’s real life is in gaudy Technicolor--and Paul Gallo’s alternately shadowy and garish lighting.

The biggest change from the Shubert cast is that Tony Award-winner James Naughton isn’t here as Stone. But McCarthy does a fine, if somewhat derivative, job. His Stone is just as cynical and wise-cracking as he needs to be; the actor realizes that the character is one-dimensional (that’s one of the reasons Stine is agonizing) and he doesn’t go for more than the obvious.

Also new in a significant role is Catherine Cox, who has taken over for Randy Graff as Stone’s girl, Friday Oolie, and Stine’s boss’ secretary. She brings the requisite romantic longing and hard-nosed common sense to both characters. As the villainous Alaura Kingsley, Lauren Mitchell combines icy guile and leggy appeal.

If there’s a scene-stealer here, it has to be Levin. His director is all noise and bad taste, glad-handing this guy, back-slapping that guy and threatening Stone with a smile. Gelbart’s sharpest digs at Hollywood and the powers that be are reserved for this gasbag, and Levin makes him funny and insufferable at the same time.

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‘City of Angels’

A touring production of the Larry Gelbart/Cy Coleman/David Zippel musical, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa through Nov. 10. Directed by Michael Blakemore. With Jeff McCarthy, Stephen Bogardus, Charles Levin, Leslie Denniston, Doug Carfrae, Catherine Cox, Kathy Garrick, Bob Walton, Richard Kasper, Tampa Lann, Monica Mancini, Royce Reynolds, Robert Ousley, Robert Rod Barry, Lauren Mitchell, Joe Lala, Jack Manning, Andrew Husmann, Anastasia Barzee, Jeffrey Rockwell, Alvin Ing, Sarah Tattersall, Jordan Leeds, Christiane Noll, Nick DeGruccio and Darwyn Swalve. Sets by Robin Wagner. Costumes by Florence Klotz. Lighting by Paul Gallo. Musical direction by Vincent Fanuele. Plays Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. (except Nov. 10) and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets: $21 to $44. (714) 556-ARTS.


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