Etched in noir, a 'City' revival knows the score

Times Staff Writer

The wail of horns, the shudder of a keyboard, the insistent heartbeat of drums -- and over it, the purr and buzz of voices.

Life pulses through any great piece of music, but jazz, moody and impulsive as it is, somehow sounds more real than the real thing. The late Cy Coleman, a gifted jazzman who found a career writing Broadway scores, brought that drama to his music for "City of Angels," the 1989 riff on film noir detective movies that became a critical darling and won six Tony Awards, including best score and best musical. That score, written with lyricist David Zippel, gets treated seriously, and with obvious admiration, in a presentation by the revival specialists of Reprise!

"City of Angels" harks back to such atmospheric 1940s gumshoe dramas as "The Big Sleep" and "The Maltese Falcon." The crackling book by Larry Gelbart focuses on a writer who has been hired to turn his detective novel into a screenplay. As scenes from the emerging movie unfold opposite events in the writer's everyday life, we see the writer's vulnerabilities duplicated in his characters. When the writer finds himself cheapening his story to suit the tastes of a powerful producer-director, however, he begins to realize that his characters have something to teach him about resolve and resilience.

On a bandstand at the back of the stage, musical director Gerald Sternbach conducts a 14-piece orchestra from his seat at a keyboard. Big-band oomph is given jazz-combo focus in their tight, bright sound.

Stephen Bogardus portrays the writer, as he did when the Broadway staging was duplicated at Century City's Shubert Theatre in 1991. It's an intriguingly complex role, since Stine, as the writer is called, is impulsive, erratic and a bit of a heel. Bogardus channels the resulting drama through a ringing trumpet of a voice, delivering the high, final notes of his biggest numbers with exclamation points of emotion.

By contrast, Burke Moses as Stone, the fictional detective who is Stine's idealized yet still fallible alter ego, sings in a bass-baritone that rumbles with worldly self-assurance.

These may be the forceful central characters, but they meet their equals in the story's women. "City of Angels" provides a particularly good showcase for female performers, and those assembled for this cast are as feisty and alluring a group as one could wish.

In dual roles as Stine's wife and Stone's lost love, Tami Tappan Damiano delivers the score's torchiest numbers in a midnight soprano that she seems to exhale in one long sigh.

Vicki Lewis projects saunter and swing in parallel roles as the story's self-aware Girls Friday, while Marguerite MacIntyre is all breathy allure as the femmes fatales.

A sparely staged Reprise! presentation can't begin to reproduce all of the scenic wizardry that enabled the original production to unfold in a series of movie-like close-ups, scene fades and tracking shots. So director Joe Leonardo and choreographer Kay Cole focus on getting attitudes right so that theatergoers' minds can fill in the rest.

As before, however, Stine's activities are presented in color while the movie-like Stone scenes are in 1940s black and white. Set, costumes and lights delineate the parallel worlds, which are clearly labeled by the full-color blowup of Stine's novel cover hanging above his side of the stage, and a black-and-white rendition of the movie poster hovering above Stone's.

Some drama is lost when residual light after a blackout enables the audience to see that instead of the fatal scuffle suggested by taped sound effects, the stage is given over to the mundane business of a scene change.

With such strong focus on the score, though, this presentation thumps, jumps and shouts with life.


'City of Angels'

Where: Freud Playhouse, northeast corner of the UCLA campus, Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $70 and $75

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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