City of Angels a cynical work for young MacEwan cast

City of Angels is one of those Broadway shows that bubbles along just below the surface of the great ones. Sure, it’s no Sound of Music but it is a solid, ingenious and entertaining evening.

First produced in 1989, the book by Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H*, Tootsie) is a witty satire on Hollywood, a spoof with an edge, and includes some of the sharpest dialogue ever penned for a Broadway show. Cy Coleman’s fizzy music is authentically jazz oriented and sung throughout as a narrative thread. In the case of this serviceable production from Leigh Rivenbark and his young MacEwan University theatre cast, David Zipple’s hip lyrics (and wordless scat singing) are sung by a sextet of swingin’ cats.

City of Angels plays until March 31 at MacEwan’s Triffo Theatre.

The musical is a tribute to the hard-nosed detective – the no-nonsense P.I. of film noir fame. He’s as handy with a gun as with a quip. He’s cool. He’s good – but not too good.

It also allows Gelbart to dip his pen deep into the Raymond Chandler inkwell and spit out his street smart dialogue. Here’s the Prologue:

“Three million in the City of Angels, according to the last census.  Easily half of them of them up to something they don’t want the other half to know. We all get sucked in by the lobby. Palm trees finger the sky and there’s enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh. But that’s all on top. L.A., truth to tell, is not much different than a pretty girl with the clap.”

We were allowed to see the final rehearsal for the show and asked to make allowances for “some tweaking.” The start was indeed shaky, but improved as the evening progressed and the production and cast worked into the material. What we saw showed promise.

The big problem is the very thing that brings City of Angels to the MacEwan stage: The cast is very young for the show. This play is profoundly cynical – a world of tawdry flashing neon lights and mean streets. Everyone is on the take, and everyone – including our hard-nosed hero – indiscriminately beds everyone else. Immorality rolls in with the smog. Perhaps it’s hard to do “cynical” when your cast is so young.

The Private Dick at the centre of this unprincipled world is Stone (Anthony Hurst), the creation of an insecure novelist named Stine (Joshua Travnik). Stine is the author of a series of best-selling books about the famous shamus. The writer is a harassed nebbish – while Stone is Humphrey Bogart. The author has been brought to Hollywood by the crass producer Buddy Fiddler (Austin From) to turn one of his books into a movie. Stine fights to keep some literary worth in his story, but Fiddler wants a happy ending, lower necklines and even lower standards. While snipping away at Stine’s screenplay he cheerily sings about his Weinsteinian ways in the song, The Buddy System.

“You don’t like the words?” asks Stine.

“They’re perfect,” Fiddler spits out. “We’ll fix them.”

Stine thinks his literary smarts are the power behind the books – but his detective character figures he’s the force that drives the whole caboodle. They taunt each other in song: Without Me You’re Nothing. Delivered with verve by Hurst and Travnik, it proves to be the best thing in the show.

Cathy Derkach’s eight-piece band is suspended on a platform at the back of the stage (Designer: Robyn Ayles) and given the demands of the jazzy music, the highly visible position is deserved.

In a masterful display of intertwined plotting, Gelbart’s concept is that when the writer rewrites his screenplay, the gumshoe acts it out. When Stine drops a scene, Stone and everyone else in the scene twitch and jerk backwards to the beginning and start it all over again. It’s hilarious, particularly in a cleverly designed and very physical fight (choreographed by Christine Bandelow).

Stone is not alone. The usual suspects are there – the vamps, the tramps and the two bit broads; and the ever faithful secretary, Oolie (Jaclyn Kucey – with a big brassy broad-stroke voice), and the beautiful rich brunette client who slinks into the room  – “Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever…”

Observes Oolie, “She’s wearing a year’s salary.”

In a bow to The Big Sleep, there’s Mallory (Alyson Horne) the sexy rich jailbait kid and her aged billionaire father in an iron lung. Ricardo Rivera appears as a standard issue Latino cop who is tracking Stone and gets the great song All You Have to Do Is Wait. Other stand-out songs include What You Don’t Know About Women, sung by Oolie and Gabby (Stone’s wife – with a strong voice from Isabella King ) who tries to keep her husband out of Hollywood’s clutches. Travnik tears a powerful hunk out of Stone’s big solo, Funny. Daniela Fernandez brings a sexy, smoky voice to Bobbi, the Blue Note chanteuse.

If all this reads as rather complex, it’s not – although the scenes keep coming at you for the three hour length of the production (with intermission). It’s not helped by the fact that the musical itself goes soft in the middle. The intricacy of the staging, with its ‘40s-style scratchy black and white movie scenes and cinematic mounting proved to be a bit of a challenge for the theatre.

Generally, however, the cast is up to the very demanding requirements of this ambitious work.