The musical City of Angels sounds a lot more complicated than it actually plays. On paper, it's about a real-life writer named Stine (the powerfully voiced Rob Tilley), who is turning his bestselling novel into a movie script featuring a 1940s, Sam Spade-style detective named Stone (a charming Nathan Sakovich, with perfect comic timing and delivery).
Sounds pretty confusing — two shows going on at once — but director Linda Hougland's excellent cast and crew, Charlie Skelton's spare, unambiguous set design, and Marie Skelton and Mary Branham's color-percise costumes make the Richey Suncoast Theatre production easy to follow, understand and enjoy. Crucial clue: The movie part is all in black and white (except for blood-red lipstick on the femme fatale), while the real-life story is all in color.
The mood is set in the prologue by a quartet of delightful scat/jazz/bebop singers (Tracie Callahan, Carl Unkle, Dezzie Sala and CJ Fowler) doing the kind of sophisticated ba-doop-be-ba background music popular in B-grade detective movies of the mid 1940s.
Kudos to music director Jackie Doxey Scott, whose precise piano and backup combo make the sometimes dissonant score sound downright sensible and really soar on the more traditional numbers, such as With Every Breath I Take, You're Nothing Without Me and I'm Nothing Without You.
As the play starts, the audience sees Stine hard at work off to one side, banging on his old typewriter, then watches his work play out in a black-and-white movie on center stage, complete with comical rewinds and rewrites. On the opposite side of the stage (and the opposite side of Stine's concept of his own work) is the aptly named director/producer Buddy Fidler (Paul Mattes in full bluster), who fiddles around not only with Stine's script, but also with every woman in sight.
At first, it looks like the familiar battle for control between a Hollywood screenwriter and an egomaniacal movie mogul who insists that every scene be done his way. The movie has all of the B-movie cliches: a sultry nightclub singer named Bobbi (a clear-voiced, lovely Beth Phillips), tough-guy voice-over narration by Detective Stone, two thugs (Carl Brown, Greg Lanford) beating up the nosy detective, and the sexy, sultry Alaura Kingsley (the sexy, sultry Star Verosic), who's married to a dying 75-year-old millionaire and worried that her stepchildren are trying to dupe her out of his money.
It's soon obvious that almost every character in Stine's script is the counterpart to someone in his life: Detective Stone's girlfriend, the ambitious nightclub singer Bobbi, is just like writer Stine's ambitious wife, Gabby (also played by Ms. Phillips). The venal, philandering movie mogul, Irwin S. Irving, is just like movie mogul Fidler (both played by Mattes). Stone's adoring secretary, Oolie, and Fidler's promiscuous secretary, Donna, are played tender-then-tough by the chameleonlike Patricia Dorsher.
And it's Stone and Oolie that the womanizing writer Stine idealizes, wishing that he had Stone's upright moral fiber and that his wife was as unquestioningly supportive as Oolie.
Things rock along until Fidler guts Stine's book, taking out a racial-based plotline to please the McCarthy-era censors. The script, like Stine's life, goes from meaningful to mundane, which then leads to a clever turn of events.
The 1990 Tony Award-winning City of Angels is a huge challenge to the performers on stage and in the pit, which may explain why it's rarely done. (The last area performance I could find was at Tampa's David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in 1992). That's all the more reason to applaud RST for giving local audiences a chance to see something beyond the tried-and-true, just as the theater did with the musical Chess in 2008, following the much-talked-about Josh Groban special benefit of the show in 2003.
City of Angels isn't doze-off moon/june/spoon fare, but who wants that, when you can see a fresh, intelligent, sharp-witted show done by two dozen performers willing to take on a challenge?