Mystery, murder, mayhem, and magic abound in SBMT’s “City of Angels”

sbmt-coa-program-1By Ande Jacobson

Who doesn’t love a tangled murder mystery? SBMT has one in City of Angels, complete with a full orchestra highlighting all the twists and turns in the story of a 1940s detective novel being transformed into a Golden Age Hollywood movie. This show (with book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by David Zippel) captures the film noir feel of the period, embellishes it with witty dialogue and a classy jazz score, and neatly packages it into an evening of exquisite theatre.

The plot develops in a parallel storyline bouncing between the real world and the “reel” world. In the real life portion of the story, Stine (Michael Rhone) is a successful mystery novelist who, after signing a lucrative movie deal, begins a frustrating collaboration with the megalomaniac producer/director Buddy Fidler (Ed Sengstack) to turn his book into a Hollywood blockbuster. Under Fidler’s dictatorship, sophistication is replaced with clichéd hype that’s very tongue-in-cheek, and Stine is forced to rewrite Stone (Stephane Alwyn), his fictional alter ego, in a somewhat unconventional way.

This show is traditionally performed in some type of split stage presentation, with real life shown in lifelike color, while the reel world appears in shades of gray. Linus Graphyte’s set design and Mae Heagerty-Matos’ costume design create the color palette and period foundation. Adding creative use of drapes and Michael Glenn Muñoz’s lighting design, the effect is very crisp and clean. The production has a 1940s visual authenticity reminiscent of that bygone Hollywood era, and only once does the real color palette intrude on reel life before its time.

Director Doug Brook has his cast in almost constant motion when they are the focus of the action, and very effectively frozen when the focus shifts. Working in tandem with choreographer Kayvon Kordestani and stage manager Philip Jacke, the resulting action and transitions are quick and smooth through the 40 or so scenes in the show. The scene changes are choreographed beautifully, so that the audience is never left wanting for action.

The most impressive aspect of this production is its music. The music is complex even though it centers on just a few themes. The timing changes, the keys modulate, and the tight vocal harmonies of its 40s style jazz permeate the hall. Vocal director Diane Milo and musical director Dan Singletary have combined cast and orchestra nicely in this one.

On the vocal side, The Angel City Four (Christina Bolognini, David Mister, Libby Moore, and Will Perez) wow the audience with tight harmonies throughout the performance. The only hiccup opening night was in the opening scene. The mic balance was off so that the upper voices got a bit lost in the vocal mix. That minor glitch improved as the performance progressed, and the quartet shined throughout.

The City of Angels Theme is a very effective and haunting leitmotif that twists and turns, each time with a bit more urgency. Singletary starts the theme just slightly under tempo, potentially to build more suspense, but possibly also to help accommodate a very challenging opening phrase for the winds and brass that just flies by. The orchestra never overpowers the cast, which is impressive in the Saratoga space given they are in the house with no pit. The sound walls help, but Singletary and his musicians are the real heroes here. While there were a few small misses on opening night that were probably only noticeable to someone who’s played the show themselves, these should clean up quickly, and the music will end up as smooth as glass. And be sure to stay through the Exit Music as that’s the best purely instrumental number in the show.

The Entr’acte is a special treat as well, coupling the Epilogue (not normally in the score outside of Broadway, and at the end of the show, not in the middle) with the existing lead-in to Act 2. Both the Prologue and Epilogue feature the orchestra and The Angel City Four in the City of Angels Theme, but in the former, the voices are used strictly as instruments as the quartet scat sings the song. The second time, we get to hear the words, and they tell an interesting story of murder and mayhem.

Rhone and Alwyn are well-matched. They impressively navigate some tricky and demanding vocals, and both have their timing down on some rather witty dialogue. Stone is everything that Stine isn’t but aspires to be, and their interactions are very entertaining.

The rest of the cast members beyond Stine, Stone, and The Angel City Four each have a real role and a reel role, a few of them reprising roles they’ve held in other productions of the show. Standout performances include Ed Sengstack’s Buddy Fidler/Irwin S. Irving (a favorite role of his), Molly Thornton’s Carla/Alaura (opening weekend only), Dave Leon’s Pancho Vargas/Lt. Muñoz (particularly as Muñoz playing very nicely off of Alwyn), Glenna Murillo’s Donna/Oolie – a girl Friday on either side of reality, and Barbara Reynolds’ Gabby/Bobbi.

Murillo and Reynolds have a very telling duet early in Act 1 entitled What You Don’t Know About Women from both sides of “screen” showing how certain truths prevail no matter one’s reality.

Leon shines in All You Have to Do is Wait, a somewhat satirical, yet revealing number that highlights the relationship between Stone and Muñoz.

Rhone’s performance of Funny is inspired. He nails the song as he exposes his character’s inner thoughts in the lyrics’ emphatic message.

The remaining ensemble is strong, solid vocally, and crucial for the story.

The writing in the final scene is a little drawn out and drags a bit before the musical finale bursts forth featuring Rhone, Alwyn, and Reynolds to resolve both stories. While the scene is somewhat incongruous with the rest of the presentation, it’s necessary to the plot, so it’s forgivable as the final resolution is quite satisfying.

City of Angels is an enjoyable evening’s entertainment. It is well acted and played, and is very much worth a trip to Saratoga this run.

When:  Continues through 8 October 2016

Where: Saratoga Civic Theater, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA 95070

Info:  See or call 408-266-4SDG (4734) (available 24 hours a day)

City of Angels (1990 Original Broadway Cast)
City of Angels (Applause Musical Library)
City of Angels Vocal Selections


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