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‘City of Angels’ Translates Well to Small Stage

TIMES STAFF WRITER

By bringing the puckish Hollywood satire of “City of Angels” into a 99-seat theater, the Colony makes lyricist David Zippel’s intricate wordplay easier to appreciate than in the bigger halls where this musical has played.

Zippel’s lyrics are almost as witty as Larry Gelbart’s book. They still zip by at the fast pace of the previous productions, but proximity to the singers helps us decipher the quicker quips. Not every word is perfectly clear even here, but it’s an improvement.

Laurence O’Keefe’s jazz quintet above and behind the stage keeps composer Cy Coleman’s tempos lively but doesn’t overpower the singers. O’Keefe also gets credit for directing the snazzy scat quartet that sings throughout the show.

In a collaboration by several set designers and costumers Shon LeBlanc and A. Jeffrey Schoenberg, the Colony created a lavish-looking stage for “City of Angels” with only a fraction of the original production’s budget and space.

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The palette remains rigorously divided between color for the scenes set in ‘40s Hollywood and black and white for the detective-movie-within-the-musical. Across the back of the stage is a formidable-looking but flexible wall with sliding screens, decorated by a fragment of the Hollywood sign and snippets of enlarged film stock.

A scene in which the screenplay’s Det. Stone walks through a series of “doors” into a mansion is an especially nifty scenic stunt. Scenic limitations seriously impair only one scene--the narrow second-act escape of Det. Stone from a couple of bad guys. An apparent lighting miscue affected another scene at the reviewed performance but presumably that problem will be fixed.

Directors Nick DeGruccio and Todd Nielsen assembled a mostly powerful cast. Robert Stoeckle isn’t as rumpled as some Det. Stones, but he uses his resonant voice and deadpan expression to great effect. Barbara Passolt is a knockout as the secretary to Stone and the oily studio boss Fidler (Blaise Messinger).

Lego Louis makes an especially robust impression in the relatively minor but thematically important role of Munoz, the cop who was Stone’s former partner. With his big number “All Ya Have to Do Is Wait” followed by the ever popular “You’re Nothing Without Me,” the first act ends with a bang.

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The second act doesn’t quite sustain the momentum. Gelbart’s screenplay-within-the-play has an excess of twists; the show gets longer but not deeper. The foundering marriage of Nielsen’s screenwriter Stine and Jan Pessano’s Gabby doesn’t matter much--they seem mismatched from the start (Pessano’s better as the screenplay’s torch singer Bobby). Nor does Stine’s affair with the secretary ring true.

Despite these problems, “City of Angels” remains stylish and clever, and here is a rare opportunity to see it up close.

* “City of Angels,” Colony Studio Playhouse, 1944 Riverside Dr., Los Angeles. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. This Saturday only, 2 p.m. instead of 8 p.m. Ends Aug. 11. $22-$25 ($30 at Equity Fights AIDS benefit, July 8). (213) 665-3011. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.


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