Towson's 'City of Angels' soars

July 23, 1998|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

If Raymond Chandler had written a musical, it might have been "City of Angels" -- and not just because it's about a private eye. This immensely clever show is also a put-down of Hollywood, a place Chandler once described as "poison for writers."

Although "City of Angels" (music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by David Zippel and book by Larry Gelbart of "M*A*S*H") won the 1990 Tony Award, it hasn't exactly had a slew of subsequent productions -- probably because it's a large and complex show.

Indeed, with a cast of 30, orchestra of 18 and backstage crew of another 18, "City of Angels" is the largest production in the 17-year history of Towson University's Maryland Arts Festival. It is so big, the festival has mounted it in the 700-seat Stephens Hall, where it has only a four-day run.

A lot of effort has gone into this limited run, and most of it -- especially the performances -- pays off. But the production's design is more cumbersome than helpful -- a considerable detriment for a show whose complicated book tells two stories at once.

The first story relates the Hollywood adventures of a 1940s novelist named Stine. The second story is the screenplay he's writing, based on his novel about a detective named Stone. The gimmick is that we watch the screenplay being acted out while he's writing it.

Furthermore, since the characters in the screenplay are based on people in Stine's life, the same actors double in both roles. For example, the actress who plays Stine's wife (Libby Tomlinson-Gensler) also plays the movie detective's girlfriend.

You can see how this could get confusing. Broadway solved the problem visually: Stine's story was told with sets and costumes in full color, while Stone's fictitious saga was depicted in black and white, a choice that also reinforced the film noir feel of the screenplay. However, Maryland Arts Festival designers Thom Bumblauskas (sets) and Georgia O'Daniel Baker (costumes) have opted for color throughout, and the result -- despite some stylish costumes -- sacrifices some of the clarity as well as some of the comedy.

Even so, Gelbart's script and characters are too ingenious to be repressed, and director John Ford has assembled a strong cast. Shawn Doyle as Stine and Edward J. Peters as Stone -- among the few roles that aren't doubled -- are the embodiment of a rumpled writer (physically and morally) and his smoother fictional alter ego. The first act's closing number, when they confront each other with the accusation, "You're Nothing Without Me," is one of the slickest moments in the show.

Shannon Wollman is also period-perfect in the dual roles of two secretaries, both of whom belt out the big solo, "You Can Always Count on Me." Also on-target are sultry Carolyn Black-Sotir as the femme fatale wives of two rich bigwigs; Lauren Spencer-Harris as an ambitious starlet and the screenplay's naughty little rich girl; and Dennis Wood as a recording star whose silky crooning deserves better than Stone's quip that he's "a tenor I wouldn't give you two fives for."

Mysteries are notoriously tricky material for musicals since they have so much plot, and "City of Angels" has more than most. Although the Maryland Arts Festival adds a few wrinkles of its own, the overall effect is as satisfying as reading a classic whodunit -- one that's so smart, it not only ties up all the loose ends, it also sings and dances.

'City of Angels'

Where: Towson University, Stephens Hall Theatre, 7900 York Road

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $19 and $21

Call: 410-830-2787

Pub Date: 7/23/98

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