By Liam McLoughlin 22/09/2015
Penned by the creator of M*A*S*H Larry Gelbart in the late 1980s, City of Angels is one of the hidden jewels of musical theatre. The writing is sharp, the structure ingenious and the musical numbers will give you tingles (your neurons are fine, they’re just electric songs). It’s days after opening night and I’m still dancing down the street singing the power ballad ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’, much to the confusion of bystanders, whose lives seem little dependent on mine. Not only that, but this clever satire has a scathing critique of Hollywood whitewashing and for a musical written by a man about a male writer who is devising a screenplay about a male detective, the treatment of women is refreshingly intelligent. Performed by a Rockdale Musical Society cast brimming with talent, you’ll bless your cotton socks you gave up a night of M*A*S*H reruns for this.
City of Angels threads together two worlds. The first is late 1940s Hollywood where novelist Stine struggles to adapt his successful book into a screenplay which will please the vapid and interfering movie mogul Buddy Fidler. The second is the film noir world Stine creates about a hard-boiled detective named Stone and his embroilment in the devious plot of socialite Alaura Kingsley. The genius of the musical is the interplay between narratives. The noir actors playing out scenes to the left of stage are thrown into reverse as Stine, stage right, re-writes scenes at the behest of the autocratic Fidler. More than just an amusing conceit, characters are cleverly mirrored in the two worlds and most twin pairs are played by the same actor. Stine writes himself as Stone, his estranged wife Gabby inspires Stone’s former girlfriend Bobbi, and Fidler’s secretary Donna is echoed in Stone’s assistant Oolie.
The intelligent writing matches the clever structure. Newspapers are ‘yesterday’s lies with today’s date on them’, flashbacks are ‘a thing of the past’, and the megalomaniac Fidler is resilient because he ‘got over not being God’. Kernels of truth are littered throughout, like in the question ‘when are you going to like yourself a little more so you can stand for people to like you a little less?’ Pithy lines come thick and fast, like when Stine describes a Hollywood party as having an atmosphere of ‘envy so thick you can cut it with a knife lodged in every other back’.
The writing gives welcome nuance to several female characters. Josie Rourke, director of the 2014 City of Angels revival in the West End, said the range of ‘formidable and complex women...always one step ahead of the male protagonists’ was part of what drew her to the work. Perhaps that also attracted the director of this production, Christie Wykes. In any case we watch Alaura Kinglsey outfox Stone and see Gabby empowered as she walks out on Stine. Songs like ‘What You Don’t Know About Women’ and ‘You Can Always Count On Me’ give beautiful insights into the action from a female perspective. There is still a clear vein of sexism, particularly from Fidler and less so from Stone, due to the 1940s context in which it is set.
The show is also commendably critical of Hollywood’s treatment of race. Fidler orders Stine to ‘kill the politics’ of his original book and eliminate his exploration of racism. Fidler calls for a more patriotic screenplay from Stine: ‘change all that red, yellow and black to red, white and blue’. It’s this kind of corruption of his work that leads Stine to believe ‘collaborating is working with the enemy’.
Christie Wykes and her superb cast should be congratulated for doing justice to so much of this. Lachlan O’Brien is phenomenal as Stine. His acting is strong, his accent convincing, and his renditions of ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’ and ‘Funny’ are nothing short of sensational. Craig Davison does well as the washed out, beleaguered detective Stone, particularly as a last minute replacement for Jay Duncan. His duets with Stine are major highlights of the show. Clare McCallum as Gabby/Bobbi and Jacqui Greenfield as Donna/Oolie also deserve special mention. Their duet of the challenging ‘What You Don’t Know About Women’ is spot on and Greenfield’s ‘You Can Always Count On Me’ is heartfelt and quite touching. Rodney Betram’s lighting design neatly contrasts the cold and shadowy noir world with the technicolour warmth of post-war Hollywood.
There were certainly some opening night jitters. Lines were fluffed on several occasions, sound was late for a number of cues and sometimes the orchestra dominated over weaker vocals. Other trivial things amused me, like the quilt cover in one 1940s scene which I own myself. Of more concern were things which are much harder to change. With a running time of about three hours, it did drag in parts and felt repetitive in others. Some of this is inherent in the original work, but some is due to slow or stilted dialogue delivery which would benefit from a livelier pace.
Nonetheless these things are small beans relative to the many brilliant aspects of this show. I’ll be singing the praises of City of Angels for some time to come.
Now please excuse me while I go and re-watch Season 11 of M*A*S*H.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
City of Angels
By Larry Gelbart
Music Cy Coleman
Lyrics David Zippel
Director Christie Wykes
Musical Director Mathew Reid
Choreographer Joseph Nalty
Cast Courtney Adams, Chris Bamford, Danielle Baret, Renee Bechara, Rebecca Carter, Rory Chatterton, Craig Davidson, Jacqui Greenfield, Sam Hile, Ana Lawford, Rebecca MacCallion, Clare McCallum, Steph McKenna, Lachlan O’Brien, Karen Pendleton, Peter Pendleton, Shane Pritchard, Mal Tuck, Annette Vitetta and Simon Ward
Rockdale Town Hall, NSW