City of Angels
19 December 2014
What’s this? Is that a revolve on the Donmar stage? Why, yes it is. A revolve built into some antique period flooring. There is a twisting staircase too, leading from the lower level to a higher level where, clearly, action will occur. The upper section has a backdrop of stacks and stacks of papers, scripts – it is the domain of a writer. The lower section has a backdrop of film cans; a studio library of past hits, the garish titles meticulously lettered on the side of each thin can. And it’s all black, white and grey.
Robert Jones, in one deft stroke, provides the audience entering the Donmar Warehouse with a clear understanding of what they are about to delve into in Josie Rourke’s production of the neglected masterpiece City of Angels: two related worlds, the writer’s real world and the world of fiction he produces; two worlds where there will be cross-over and where there will be twists, turns and revolvers. Just by looking at the set, the audience can see that this is no ordinary musical – they have to pay attention. They can sense what lies ahead.
Jones helps them though – the writer’s world features colour; the fictional film world is all black and white, reflecting the spirit of the great film noir classics which, at its heart, this piece celebrates and skewers. Howard Harrison’s exemplary and inspirational lighting design assists in the dual world comprehension significantly. The Donmar has rarely looked as good as it does here thanks to Jones and Harrison.
City of Angels has an impeccable pedigree – a book by Larry Gelbart, lyrics by David Zippel and a rich, brassy score from Cy Coleman. It provides great scope for sexy, funny, thrills and surprises. And tremendous singing.
There are two parallel stories which intertwine. Stine is a writer, married but unfaithful, who is constantly struggling with the Studio to preserve the artistic integrity of his book, which he is adapting for the screen. He has to deal with his own inadequacies as well as the ludicrous demands of his philistine producer/director, Buddy Fidler, and the promises that man makes to various actresses with whom he is intimate. We see the vivid world he creates for his characters, chiefly Stone, the former-cop-turned-detective, the musical equivalent to Humphrey Bogart, and watch as he writes and rewrites their fates.
Fairly obviously, Stone is Stine’s inner-macho hero, the name being a bit of a giveaway. There is a lot of fun to be had with Stine’s rewrites and the very best aspect of the direction of this production is the way the cast deal with those revisions – they act backwards to the point where Stone starts re-writing. It never ceases to be amusing. It is worth seeing this production just for those sequences.
In many other respects, however, Rourke’s direction leaves a lot to be desired. This is one of the sexiest, most sensual, sounding scores in the Broadway repertoire yet Rourke produces an almost sterile, celibate version. It has nothing to do with the music, which is played with immense gusto and style by the hot orchestra led by the gifted Gareth Valentine; nor has it anything to do with the staging of the musical numbers, all of which see Stephen Mear in dazzling form, witty, surprising and joyful.
No, the issues here are in the casting and the direction. There is simply not enough sizzle in this City, the Angels aren’t angelic enough, the sex isn’t raunchy enough, and the characters, particularly the fictional characters, are not extreme enough. There is an ocean of missed opportunities.
The performance of the night comes from Marc Elliott, who has the relatively small role of Munoz (the fictional cop partner of Stone who is determined, in a comic book kind of way, to see Stone faces justice for a crime Munoz wrongly thinks he committed) and Pancho, the flamboyant matinee idol who will play the Munoz role in the film. Elliott is astoundingly good; he misses no second the role offers and makes much out of the material. Indeed, the first Act does not really come to life, in terms of acting and singing, until he delivers his show-stopping, all-singing, all-dancing, tour de force, complete with stylish back-up dancers, All Ya Have To Do Is Wait. Mear provides spectacular choreography and Elliott takes the opportunity offered and runs with it. The show is never better than in this number.
Which is remarkable, because it is not, by a long shot, the best number in the score. Views differ as to what the best number might be, but the one that follows Elliott’s, You’re Nothing Without Me, is certainly in the top 5. Here, it is the staging which makes it electrifying. Stone and Stine have the equivalent of a musical shoot-out, each seeking domination over the other.
Harrison’s lighting goes into over-drive here, producing a quite thrilling coup de théâtre. It is fantastic to watch Stone (Tam Mutu) and Stine (Hadley Fraser) do battle in the Mear/Harrison war zone, but the vocals take a very definite third place to movement and lighting. So, where, musically, this can be extraordinarily thrilling as a duet, here it thrilling for other reasons. Fraser’s final note is perfectly pitched and sung, and closes Act One on a real high, but unlike in Elliott’s number, the music does not get the attention it really deserves.
Some numbers are very well served. Rosalie Craig delivers It Needs Work with real poise and style; Samantha Barks is superb in her big, husky, number, Lost and Found; Rebecca Trehearn oozes the correct sensuality and style in You Can Always Count On Me; Mutu, Fraser and Craig all end the show on a vibrant vocal high with the finale, I’m Nothing Without You.
Other material fares less well. Tim Walton is completely wrong for Jimmy Powers; the role requires a smooth, light voiced crooner, a Johnny Ray type. Stay With Me misses its mark because Walton can’t, or doesn’t, croon. Peter Polycarpou, who seems to get cast whenever an older man is required in a musical (and even when one is not) is just too bland as Buddy and both his numbers lack vitality, menace and interest. Craig, surprisingly, brings no raunch or breathy sexuality to the glorious torch song, With Every Breath I Take, so while she hits the notes, the passion and tremulous glory of the song is entirely absent.
Katherine Kelly misjudges her dual role entirely; she is too fey, not enough Lauren Bacall in her approach. This robs Mutu’s Stone of many possibilities for film noir bad boy ladies man action. He goes through the paces, but there is no sense his heart, or any other part of his body, is in it. Nor is Kelly any good at the comedic aspects of her character. She is a great disappointment.
The quartet comprising Angel City Four do not harmonise nearly well enough to make their vocal moments together entrancing; individually, they score more points – Sandra Marvin, especially, does very well in her solo work. Cameron Cuffe has an excellent voice which he uses well, but his role, pretty-boy Peter Kingsley, involves little singing. He has, however, no trouble being the prettiest cast member (unfeasibly so) and he can act very convincingly. One to watch.
Fraser and Craig, though married in real life (or perhaps because of that) have a startling lack of chemistry on stage. This makes it difficult to understand why Stine is prepared to give up his career for Craig’s Gabby. Indeed, there is too much of the geek about Fraser’s performance; Stine has never struck me as particularly nerdish. He is a writer – he drinks, womanises and writes. Fraser can do all that and should be capable of a more powerful, more out-of-control Stine than he gives here.
The two levels Rourke uses in the small Donmar space make it difficult for the stalls audience, at least, to see all of the action. This is really unforgivable; as Artistic Director, Rourke should know the limitations of the theatre. There is often a sense of unnecessary clutter on stage; almost as if the production was intended for a larger stage. There are moments when Rourke’s direction sees cast members in danger of literally falling over each other.
Nevertheless, the sheer power of the creativity underlying the book, score and lyrics here propels matters. Coleman’s music is intoxicating, and while there is no doubt it could and should have been better serviced by Rourke’s vision for the production and the work she extracted from her cast, it retains its charm and power. Although neither as funny or sexy as it might be, Rourke’s version of City of Angels is still hugely enjoyable.
In no small part, this is because of the combined magic of Robert Jones, Howard Harrison, Gareth Valentine and, especially, the indefatigable Stephen Mear. The movement, design and musical support for the company here is beyond breath-taking. Add excellent turns from Marc Elliott, Samantha Barks, Rebecca Trehearn, Sandra Marvin and Cameron Cuffe and mostly good work from Tam Mutu, Hadley Fraser and Rosalie Craig and overlook the deficiencies in others in the cast and this is a solid production of City of Angels.
The trouble is – it ought to have been sensational.