Theatre Review : Words Are Still the Thing With 'Angels' in Cerritos

TIMES STAFF WRITER

"City of Angels" has reached Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts in a scenically slim, non-union touring version--but its reduced circumstances don't affect it as much as you might expect.

Unlike "Grand Hotel"--which was shorn of its grandeur in a similarly lower-budget version at Cerritos last year--"City of Angels" doesn't suffer much by scenic compression. Its strength is the wit of Larry Gelbart's book and David Zippel's lyrics, as sung to Cy Coleman's intricately jazzy rhythms. It never probes too far beneath its satirical surface about the fate of screenwriters and private eyes in '40s Hollywood. It's not about big characters or big scenery.

It would be fun to see a top-flight "City of Angels" in a much smaller hall--the closer you are to all that wordplay, the more you're likely to appreciate it. That may be why the show didn't do as well as hoped in its first Southland outing at the 1,825-seat Shubert in 1991.

Many of the 1,340 seats in this configuration of the Cerritos hall are also too far from the stage. But most of those all-important words are heard distinctly, and the cast delivers them with style.

The youth of this cast is especially evident in the two leads, Stone (Mark Blackburn), the fictional private eye, and Stine (Randy Lake), the novelist turned screenwriter who gives Stone life. Blackburn looks like a recent graduate of gumshoe school. He lacks the well-worn mug that James Naughton brought to the original. Lake looks as if he should be graded, not paid, for his writing.

However, Lake's strong, soaring singing voice adds maturity to his performance, and he manages a playful scrappiness. Blackburn's singing isn't as notable, but he delivers the lines with a throaty growl and the proper genre timing.

Most of the other actors play characters in both a movie-within-the-play as well as the play-outside-the-movie, and most of them do it well. If the program didn't say so, you'd never know this is the first professional role for assured Ellen Brennan as Donna and Oolie, matching secretaries.

Adam Graham's studio mogul has a commanding bonhomie. Vee Ringo brings a tortured sound to Bobbi's torch song and authoritative bite to Gabby's "It Needs Work." Jill Monaco draws a clear line between her make-believe Mallory's sizzle and her Hollywood starlet's would-be sizzle.

James Bush's adaptation of Robin Wagner's sets retains the script's classic colors. But it also replaces some of the original design with pallid photographic imagery, and the L.A. skyline doesn't protrude into the hall as it did at the Shubert. Joe Leonardo directed for the Troika Organization.

* "City of Angels," Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos. Tonight-Sunday, 8 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday matinees, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $28-$41. (800) 300-4345. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

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