Sunday 21 December 2014

City of Angels - Review

Donmar Warehouse, London


Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by David Zippel
Book by Larry Gelbart
Directed by Josie Rourke

Rosalie Craig in rehearsal

It's more than 20 years since City Of Angels last played in the West End and it is a mark of panache that sees the Donmar reviving it now. An unconventional tale, mixing morality with the darker side of Hollywood's film-noir era, but for this particular production with a shortish run, a million-dollar cast and production values to match, tickets to the Donmar are like gold dust.

Hadley Fraser is Stine, a writer contracted to monstrous mogul Buddy Fidler's studios. Sat at his Corona typewriter, Stine taps out his pulp fiction screenplay City Of Angels, a mystery of murder and double crossing that centres upon the investigations of fictional gumshoe Stone. All of Stine's movie characters are modelled upon the people who share his world, with a feature of the musical's book being that the actors who play Stine's contemporaries mirror their roles in Stone's fictional existence. With one key exception: although Stone is the writer's alter-ego, he is played by Tam Mutu, in a role that sees the detective slowly usurping his creator's influence. Fraser and Mutu, both giants of their generation in musical theatre, are flawless as the protagonists inhabiting their parallel worlds. The irony as Stine stamps on Stone at the end of act one in the glorious You're Nothing Without Me, a message so brilliantly reinforced by clever projections, is slickly mirrored in the show's closing number I'm Nothing Without You.

The acting is perfect throughout. Rebecca Trehearn smoulders as secretary / other-woman in both worlds and sings sensationally, first in a striking duet with Rosalie Craig's Gabby, What You Don't Know About Women and later stealing the show with You Can Always Count On Me. Flame haired Craig stuns too, with her With Every Breath I Take a fabulous act one solo. The production's list of talent is endless. Samantha Barks pops up (literally) in Stone's bed, singing as beautifully as her looks are deliciously provocative, whilst the show's humour is never bettered than in Marc Elliott's Latin detective Munoz's number All Ya Have To Do Is Wait.

Peter Polycarpou has been busy building a reputation as the master of middle-aged Americana, with his Hines (Pajama Game) and Nathan Detroit (Guys and Dolls) proving to be recent comic delights of the canon. He surpasses himself here, both as Fidler and fictional producer Irwin. Whether it be with trousers round his ankles or cigar wedged firmly between his teeth, Polycarpou is a master.

Josie Rourke directs her first musical with an assured touch that showcases the hallmark precision of the Donmar's Artistic Director. The gorgeously voiced backing ensemble of the Angel City Four (who also play the various serving roles in the LA locations and who include the sensational Sandra Marvin) are black. In a show set some years before the (partial) emancipation that the Civil Rights movement was to yield, Rourke subtly layers her production with a tacit acknowledgment of Tinseltown's racism. Stephen Mear's inspired choreography pushes this exposition just a little further, with his work in particular on Ev’rybody's Gotta Be Somewhere and the song’s underlying theme of the resentment of white privilege proving another example of this dance supremo's excellence.

(read my recent interview with Stephen Mear here)

The Donmar's space is famously, deliciously, tiny. By early into act two the fake stage smoke has been replaced with a rich fug of cigar smoke, filling the auditorium and only adding to the authenticity. Robert Jone's set design is ingenious, with the simplicity of a scene-setting slow revolve fan cutting a swathe through a hazy spotlight beam matched only by the wizardry of Jone's CGI projections that Tardis-like expand the Donmar's confines. (The swaying palms at the Kingsley mansion are inspired!) Gareth Valentine's ten musicians, heavy on the brass and wind, extract every note of genre-laden tension and nuance from Coleman's score.

Gelbart's book is clever but it ain't perfect and there are moments when Stine's stylised "reality" is as incredible as Stone's fantasy world. But when a show is produced as perfectly as this, frankly who cares? The Donmar's City of Angels drips with world class talent. Kill to get a ticket.

Runs to 7th February 2015. The production is sold out, however the Donmar is releasing a number of Barclays Front Row each Monday and a limited number of day seats can be purchased at the box office.

Photo: Johan Persson

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