City of Angels

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—“City of Angels” was a major hit on Broadway starting in late 1989 but it’s likely that nearly all the spectators at the musical’s opening at the Marriott Theatre had never seen the show before. It’s an unorthodox departure from the standard Broadway musical, requiring a close attention to the action that may frustrate audiences expecting a traditional song and dance production. So few theaters are willing to take the risk. Indeed, the Drury Lane Theatre presented “City of Angels” in 1993 but the rejection at the box office was so potent that the theater closed the show early and inserted a revival of “Phantom of the Opera” to finish out the original four week run.

         “City of Angels” is a satire on the noir private eye stories that were so popular in American books and movies during the 1940’s and 1950’s. The characters are hard boiled, the dialogue wisecracking, and the atmosphere saturated with sexual innuendo, pessimism, betrayal, and convoluted plots. Disillusionment hangs in the air like a toxic fog as the characters flail about in a world of moral corruption and crime.

     

                      Photo Credit: Amy Boyle and the Marriott Theatre

Some of the noir plots were so complicated that nobody could figure out exactly what was going on. Raymond Chandler, the grand master of the noir detective story, admitted there were times when even he couldn‘t explain the narratives in his Philip Marlowe private eye novels. The plots might not be intelligible, but the atmosphere carried the product. When a movie has Humphrey Bogart as the noir anti-hero, the viewer will forgive much.

         The show’s title refers to Los Angeles, ground zero for the violence and cynicism that dominated the noir era. “City of Angels” is actually two parallel stories. The first scene introduces an author named Stine, sitting at a typewriter writing a screenplay adaptation of his novel about a private detective named Stone. The rest of the musical goes back and forth between the creation of “City of Angels” as a Hollywood movie and the story within the book. There are two sets of characters, the Hollywood types and the men and women who populate the novel.

To help the audience separate the characters, the Hollywood people wear bright colored costumes and the figures in the novel/movie wear muted black and grey outfits. Scenes alternate between Hollywood and the fictional goings-on, with the leading performers taking dual roles, one in the Hollywood storyline and the other in the novel. It’s easy to see how a spectator may lose the thread of who is who and what’s going on.

The parallel plots are loaded with clichés. Stine is battling the compromises he must endure, especially from the movie’s sleaze ball producer director. He’s that most familiar of literary stereotypes, the artist who sells out for money, and it’s costing him his self respect as well as his marriage to a woman who  berates him for throwing his talent away on trash, just for a measly $150,000. Then there are the clichés of noir fiction, with beautiful and accessible women who aren’t what they seem, a complex plot that defies unraveling (even when an explanation is offered at the end) and the macho private eye battling amorality and immorality all around him, as well as his own demons.

   

                   Photo Credit: Mark Campbell and Marriott Theatre

By the intermission I wasn’t liking “City of Angels” that much. The first act moved at a slow pace and I didn’t care much about either set of characters—Hollywood or fiction. Cy Coleman’s score is often tuneless, thought it did profit from David Zippel’s often snappy lyrics. For no good artistic reason, the show includes a quartet of scat singers in the Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross vein who offered some commentary on the action, but I thought just soaked up playing time, especially in the overlong first act. A Hispanic police detective named Munoz appears in the show, for no reason other than giving Stone, who once was his police officer partner, a hard time on racial grounds.

Four actresses each play two roles, one in the Hollywood segments and similar characters in the world of Stine’s novel. Keeping the female characters straight is particular tricky, Donna being the producer’s secretary and Oolie being Stone’s secretary, Carla and Alaura being a couple of manipulative sexpots married to much older but successful men, and Avril and Mallory being hot young ladies with a considerable familiarity with the bedrooms in their high society worlds. Marriott thoughtfully includes a photo character chart in the playbill of the various pairs and audiences likely will refer to it frequently.

The core performances are delivered by Rod Thomas as Stine and Kevin Earley as Stone. Thomas wows us again with his potent and expressive singing voice and his dramatic duet “You’re Nothing Without Me” with Earley is an authentic showstopper. Unfortunately, Earley doesn’t project enough of the private eye mystique the character requires. The heroine of the evening musically is Meghan Murphy as secretaries to both Stine and Stone. Murphy as a sensational voice and her I-never-have-luck- with-men” aria “You Can Always Count on Me” is a stunner. Murphy is a few years short of being a spectator Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”

Danni Smith plays Stine’s disaffected wife and Stone’s hard luck ex girl friend and Summer Naomi Smart and Erin McGrath are the sexpots. Smart’s character hires Stone to find her missing step daughter (McGrath), letting lose the tangled plot that remains impenetrable even with a long and heated confession in the show’s windup. Gene Weygandt has a ball as the movie producers in both plots, a sneering, bullying, wheedling ball of nastiness in the true craven movieland and noir traditions. Gabriel Ruiz tackles his role of Munoz with gusto, nearly masking the fact that his character contributes nothing to the story aside from piling on still more complications.

There are some interesting, often comic, scenes that take the audience into moviemaking and the creative process in general. We see the screenplay author write sometime that the characters duly act out and after the writer decides to revamp his dialogue, the characters backtrack, reciting the dialogue backwards until they reach the original starting point and then pick up the new lines. Pretty clever.

“City of Angels” is a victim of the Marriott’s in-the-round stage, which limits the scenery to a few props and denies the production much of the moody visual look so crucial to the noir style. But Thomas Ryan (set design) and Jesse Klug (lighting design) do what the can. Still, this is a show made for a large proscenium stage that can fluidly accommodate the shifting Hollywood and fictional settings. Nancy Missimi’s costumes do establish the 1940’s fashion sense, though the demarcation between the colorfully clothed Hollywood characters and the gray and black dressed fictional characters isn’t particularly pronounced.

“City of Angels” isn’t a dancing show but choreographer Tommy Rapley contributes a few nice dance moments. Director Nick Bowling does a valiant job of trying to keep the twin plot lines comprehensible for the viewers while moving the large cast on and off stage efficiently. It would be worth seeing Bowling at the helm of a revival that gives him a full stage to work with. The orchestra is outstanding, even evoking that 101-strings romantic sweep that enhanced love scenes in 1940’s movies.

“City of Angels” probably will succeed more with musical theater zealots than patrons just looking for a jolly night out, but maybe I’m selling the taste of the contemporary theatergoer short. The production certainly deserves a more respectful fate than the 1993 Drury Lane disaster. “City of Angels” dares to be different and engage the attention of the audience at a more adult level than the typical musical. The show doesn’t reach the heights of “The Maltese Falcon” or “The Big Sleep” but those books and movies didn’t have the benefit of Meghan Murphy, worth the price of admission by herself.

“City of Angels” runs through August 2 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 3 stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.                  June 2015

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Anything Goes

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” was a major musical success in 1934. Like all musical comedy hits of the 1920’s and 1930’s, the story is twaddle but the songs are great and there are opportunities for high stepping dancing. The show was revived, with alterations, in 1987 and 2011. Now the Marriott Theatre is staging “Anything Goes” (in the 1987 edition). The story is still twaddle, but agreeably so, and the music and dancing are a joy.

         The revival retains original Cole Porter hits like “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and “All Through the Night,” and plugs in Porter classics from elsewhere, like “Easy to Love,” “Friendship,” and “It’s De-Lovely.” The numbers are embedded in a story that takes place on a trans Atlantic ocean liner and concerns itself with assorted love affairs and comic misadventures. After the usual confusions and false starts, all the relevant characters on stage are paired off appropriately, if improbably, in time for the entire ensemble to sing and dance exuberantly into the night.

         The show’s core character is a jazz baby evangelist named Reno Sweeney, played by Ethel Merman in 1934, Patty LuPone in 1987, and Sutton Foster in 2011. At Marriott, the role belongs to Stephanie Binetti, she of the long legs and belting voice.

Capitalizing on the nonsensical book, the non-musical stage time is dominated by the comic actors, and Marriott is employing two of the best we have in Ross Lehman and Gene Weygandt. Lehman has been making local audiences chuckle seemingly since the presidency of William Henry Harrison. He’s a master of very broad comedy and he is thoroughly at home playing Moonface Martin, an ineffectual gangster ranked public enemy number #13 by the FBI and a man yearning to reach the magical public enemy #1 plateau. Lehman lays on the shtick with a prodigal hand, both physically and vocally, even leading the ensemble in a musical number like a mad orchestra conductor. I am not a huge fan of silly comedy on stage but if I have to watch it, I want Lehman to do the honors. Weygandt does the nearly impossible, making a drunk, and an impossibly nearsighted one at that, seem legitimately funny.

  

                                                 Photo credit: Johnny Knight Photography and The Marriott Theatre

         The romance comes from the quartet of Reno Sweeney, a young stockbroker named Billy Crocker (Jameson Cooper), a debutante named Hope Harcourt (Summer Naomi Smart), and a silly ass British aristocrat named Lord Evelyn Oakleigh (Patrick Lane). They are all aligned improperly at the beginning but by the last scene there is carnage of weddings, not only among the four principals but also between Hope’s mother (Mary Ernster) and the rich drunk (Weygandt). A ditzy oversexed blonde named Emma (Alexandra Palkovic) apparently wins the entire ship’s crew for her romantic convenience.

         Director-choreographer Marc Robin recognizes that he is not staging “A Little Night Music.” He allows the farcical comedy to run free, and if there are a few over the top moments, that’s the price of doing business with this kind of vehicle. And with the main comedy in the hands of Lehman and Weygandt, the narrative chaos works very nicely. Plus, deft comic touches and witty lines have been inserted throughout the book, first by P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton and later by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse. Best of all are the scintillating Cole Porter lyrics, especially the “catalogue” songs like “You’re the Top” with their endless stream of verbal invention.

         The production numbers come late at the Marriott, the first not taking over the stage until the first act finale. Until then the audience had to be content with a couple of Fred and Ginger romantic duets by Smart and Jameson. But the second act set the opening night audience whooping with glee with the exhilarating song and dance forays into “Public Enemy #1,” “Blow, Gabriel Blow,” and the all hands on deck finale.

     

                                         Photo credit: Johnny Knight Photography and The Marriott Theatre

        The ensemble runs to almost two dozen performers, including those old pros Ernster as Hope Harcourt’s fortunate hunting mother and John Reeger as the ship’s captain. Anne Gunn even gets in a few zingers as an old lady in a wheelchair. The eager young chorus is all high energy, typified by Sayiga Eugene Peabody’s back flips. The chorus is also responsible for making complicated changes on a nearly dark stage between scenes, executed deftly and mostly silently.

         Robin brings the show in at a tight 2 hours and 15 minutes. His staging is assisted heroically by the stunning 1930’s wardrobe designed by Nancy Missimi for the female characters. Missimi’s costumes never disappoint, but in this show she has outdone herself in glitz and glamour and variety. Marriott has obviously given her a blank check and she has spent every dollar imaginatively. I’m sure the ladies of the cast are dying to take those outfits home with them after the show closes. The rest of the physical production resides in the capable hands of Thomas M. Ryan (sets), Jesse Klug (lighting), Robert Gilmartin (sound), and Sally Weiss (properties design). Ryan Nelson conducts the capable offstage orchestra.

         “Anything Goes” treats the inanities of its storyline and characters with genial high spirits. The audience certainly will show tolerance for the antics on stage because the glorious songs maintain some dignity in Hope-Evelyn love affair, and Jameson Lane tosses off the stereotyped English booby with great élan. Lehman and Weygandt take care of the slapstick comic business to unanimous audience satisfaction. There are a few double entendres, none exceeding the PG-13 level. The success of reconstituted musicals like “Anything Goes,” “My One and Only,” and “Crazy for You” demonstrate the public’s ongoing love for the American songbook, with its hummable melodies and sharp lyrics in the service of a total fun evening. And so it is at the Marriott.

“Anything Goes” runs through May 31 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.                  April 2015

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La Cage aux Folles

At the Marriott Theatre

By Dan Zeff

Lincolnshire—In 1983, “La Cage aux Folles” opened on Broadway as perhaps the first musical to deal openly with homosexuality. The show became a major hit without generating much controversy for its then unconventional theme. Audiences flocked to see “La Cage” because it was a delightful musical in the Broadway tradition of easy to take comedy, elaborate production numbers, and an ingratiating love story.

         The revival at the Marriott Theatre presents “La Cage aux Folles” as a fun show, which it is. The gay theme is treated with much humor and some charm. This isn’t “The Boys in the Band” or “The Normal Heart.” It is Broadway at its most accessible and least threatening, with a melodic and bouncy score by Jerry Herman and plenty of rousing song and dance numbers staged with sizzle and wit by director Joe Leonardo and choreographer Melissa Zaremba, gaudily costumed by the always inventive Nancy Missimi.

            

                                              Photos courtesy of Mark Campbell and The Marriott Theatre

      The departure from the norm of Broadway musicals was the love story, not the traditional boy-girl romance but an affecting relationship between two middle-aged men who had been together for more than 20 years. The men are Georges and Albin, who run a drag nightclub named “La Cage aux Folles” at some unspecified time on the French Riviera. Georges is the club’s master of ceremonies and Albin is Zaza, the drag star of the evening. Albin/Zaza performs in front of a chorus of eight men dressed gloriously and convincingly as sexy young women.

         The club’s floorshow musical numbers provide the show’s major pleasures, but there is a storyline. It seems that 20 years previously, Georges had a one night stand with a promiscuous actress that resulted in an offspring named Jean-Michel. Georges and Albin raised the child as mother and father like a typical nuclear family. Now Jean-Michel wants to marry, and the hook is that his fiancée’s father is a bigoted politician running on a puritanical morals platform.

         Jean-Michel wants to bring his young lady and her parents to meet his “mother and father,” but Albin is an embarrassment whose homosexuality would scuttle the lad’s marriage plans. So Albin has to go back into the closet, at least during the brief stay of his fiancée and her folks. Albin naturally is outraged and offended at his dismissal, venting his outrage with the show’s major emotional moment, Albin’s defiant rendition of “I Am What I Am,” which could serve as a national anthem for the gay community.

                 

               Photos courtesy of Mark Campbell and The Marriott Theatre

         The Marriott staging goes all out for the broad comic opportunities built into a musical about transvestites and drag performers. The show cheerfully thumbs its nose at political correctness about gay matters. In one scene, Georges and Albin agree to soothe Albin’s injured feelings by agreeing to pass him off as the boy’s Uncle Albert when the fiancée’s parents arrive. But Albin exudes a full range of a caricature gay man’s physical and vocal mannerisms. Georges and Jean-Michel try to instruct him to “man up” by shedding his swishy walk and way of speaking. The scene wallows in gay stereotypes but audiences of all sexual persuasions should join in laughing at what actually is a classic case of gender profiling.

         Throughout the show, the gay/straight dichotomy comes in for a stream of low comedy wisecracks that neither the ultra homophobic nor the extreme liberal spectator should take amiss. At the end of the show Jean-Michel and his bride to be are saved by an astoundingly improbable bit of chicanery that properly humiliates the bigoted politician.

         “I Am What I Am “ is the showcase song in the show, but there is a charming number called “Song on the Sand” and a poignant tune called “Look Over There,” both illuminating the Georges/Albin relationship for what it is, warm and loving and enduring, whatever their small barbed conflicts in their daily lives. My favorite song is the cheerful “The Best of Times,” sung at a restaurant by all the major characters for no narrative reason other than it’s a very listenable song.

         The cast is headed by David Hess as Georges and Gene Weygandt as Albin. Hess has a strong voice and a solid, straightforward manner that plays nicely off Weygandt’s mincing Albin. Weygandt is most effective on the nightclub stage as Zaza, bantering archly with the spectators and wearing a vast wardrobe of gowns and wigs with style and ease.

         The supporting performers are led by the eight young men in the nightclub chorus, all singing and dancing well and generally convincingly feminine. Joseph Anthony Byrd is properly over the top as Albin’s flaming queen maid/butler Jacob, a character the audience eats up. Brian Bohn is a very credible Jean-Michel, a lad who loves his parents but is inwardly ashamed of their lifestyle and the miseries he has endured from tormenting young people as he grew up. But Jean-Michel wises up by the end of the evening and recognizes that he’s really been a lucky boy.

       I commend Fred Zimmerman for taking the realistic road in his portrayal of the Edouard Dindon, the narrow-minded politician. Zimmerman’s restrained performance as the self-righteous Dindon offers a brief reminder that such men exist in our midst where they are not dealt with so easily as Dindon is in “La Cage.” Elizabeth Telford is bright and sunny as Anne, the fiancée and Anne Gunn is fine as Dindon’s intimidated wife. Susan Moniz does an excellent cameo as the proprietor of the restaurant who improvises the plan to put the politician in his place.

         Nancy Missimi’s costumes have to carry the visual splash of the show, the theater’s in-the-round stage precluding the use of much scenery. Still, Thomas Ryan does what he can with the limited opportunities for spectacle. Jesse Klug designed the lighting and Robert Gilmartin the sound, with Sally Weiss in charge of the properties that make up most of the set. Ryan Nelson directs the excellent off stage Marriott orchestra.

         In sexual matters, “La Cage aux Folles” probably isn’t much more relevant today that it was more than 30 years ago. The story exists in a fantasyland that deals in outlandish characters and the broadest of sentiments and comedy rather than explorations of a serious cultural situation. So, nobody likely will be stimulated but nobody should be offended either. But much joy remains in the show’s 2½ hours because Joe Leonardo and Melissa Zaremba have created a production that entertains from first moment to last.

“La Cage aux Folles” runs through March 22 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 1 and 8 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 4:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 5 p.m. Tickets are $50 to $55. Call 847 634 0200 or visit www.MarriottTheatre.com.

      The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.

Contact Dan at: ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com.   February 2015

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