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‘City of Angels’ works on every level

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Sune (Jeffrey Brian Adams) tries to convince his wife (Caitlan Taylor) to stay with him in Hollywood in “City of Angels.” (Courtesy Ken Lin)

You won’t leave “City of Angels” singing the songs — but that’s because the score (by Cy Coleman) is so jazzy and the witty lyrics (by David Zippel) so intricate.

The San Francisco Playhouse production of this quarter-century-old Broadway musical, with book by Larry Gelbart (creator of the TV series “M*A*S*H”), works on every level, from terrific performances by the 11-member cast accompanied by an excellent 11-member orchestra to director Bill English’s set design and Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s stunning projected backdrops that are almost trompe l’oeil at times, plus Morgan Dayley’s choreography and Melissa Torchia’s gorgeous period-perfect costumes.

It’s the early 1950s. Novelist Stine (Jeffrey Brian Adams) has been hired by a crass Hollywood producer, Buddy (Ryan Drummond), to adapt his novel to a screenplay. Stine’s wife (Caitlan Taylor) thinks he’s selling out, but their marriage is on the rocks anyway.

Stine struggles to transform his book into a script that will please the fickle Buddy. As Stine pecks away at his manual typewriter, his whiskey bottle always at his elbow, his story comes to life on an upstage, slightly elevated proscenium: It’s a film noir, set in the late 1940s, with a private eye, Stone (played by Brandon Dahlquist), who’s at various times the writer’s alter ego, enemy and best friend; their duet at the end of Act I, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” illuminates their ambivalent relationship.

The complicated plot of the film involves a sultry dame (Nanci Zoppi), a teenage runaway (Samantha Rose), Buddy’s tough-as-nails assistant (Monique Hafen) and assorted thugs and other characters. Stine’s script is a chaotic assemblage of flashbacks, fisticuffs, seductions, cops, a murder and so on. As he desperately writes and rewrites, scenes cleverly rewind and replay with new dialogue, or simply freeze as reality occurs downstage.

Many of the actors switch roles back and forth, from film to real life, and a few of them occasionally comprise a singing quartet, all of which the cast pulls off in beautifully nuanced ways. Hafen’s transformation from mousy fictional assistant to sexy real-life assistant is particularly impressive; her angry song “You Can Always Count on Me” is downright heartbreaking.

Ultimately, it is English’s consistency of tone and sharp eye for detail, from the comical to the poignant, from the physical to the emotional — and his instinct for casting the perfect actor for every role — that gives this show its sparkle and polish.

REVIEW: City of Angels
Presented by San Francisco Playhouse
Where: 450 Post St., San Francisco
When: Tuesdays-Sundays, closes Sept. 17
Tickets: $20-$125
Contact: (415) 677-9596, www.sfplayhouse.org

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