Oscar Wilde once said that: “Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”
In the case of the musical City of Angels though, I think it’s a little of both. Hollywood comes a callin’ for Stine, an author who dreams of adapting his novel for the big screen; a novel which features a dashing private detective named Stone. Reality and fiction play out side by side, and as Stine’s life in technicolour becomes ever more complicated, so too does the case for our detective as worlds collide. Cy Coleman’s wonderful jazz score, David Zippel’s witty lyrics and Larry Gelbart’s book are currently being bought to glorious life at the Donmar Warehouse, one of favourite venues in London by a powerhouse cast and creative team, and was quite simply one of my most joyous theatrical afternoons of 2014.
This trip to the Donmar marked my 3rd production I’ve seen with Josie Rourke at the directing helm (the others being Coriolanus and The Machine) and is her first foray into musical theatre. I always enjoy her work, but feel on this particular occasion she has excelled herself; what struck me throughout was her passion for the piece, especially the film noir element. It was this piece that was a pleasure to read in my run up to seeing the show, where she talks about why she feels City of Angels is the right piece for her: http://www.theguardian.com/stage/2014/dec/06/why-city-of-angels-is-the-musical-for-me-josie-rourke-donmar-warehouse.
Knowing that a director is so passionate and enthusiastic about the creative process struck a chord with me, and with her at the helm what followed was a piece that was in realised incredibly slick, sharp and sassy terms. Here, the creative team includes: Gareth Valentine (Musical Director), Billy Byers and Larry Blank (Orchestrations), Stephen Mear (Choreographer), Duncan Mclean (Video and Projection Designer), Howard Harrison (Lighting Designer), Terry Jardine & Nick Lidster (Sound Designers) and Robert Jones (Designer), all of whom help create an atmosphere that oozes glamour and switches between reality and film so seamlessly any worry I had about whether I’d be able to follow the story as I didn’t know it all that well beforehand quickly faded. When I first entered the theatre, my overwhelming reaction was how much I loved the set and design in general: we’re greeted by Stine’s study, and from top to bottom on the backdrop are papers, reams and reams of them. There’s a little secluded corner up on the higher level where he sits and types, his words being projected as he does and of course the wonderful click of the typewriter, which is amplified. Scene changes include trips to Stone’s apartment, Buddy’s office, the Kingsley mansion and beyond, all of which are characterised by changes in lighting and props, and not for the first time I was hugely impressed by how the team at the Donmar can create such magic in such an intimate space.
The opening scene was among my favourites, there’s a moment where Stine is starting typing his screenplay when he gets on to the ‘starring’ parts and as he types his character’s names, the spotlight falls on each of the women posing, all looking gorgeous and there’s also a silhouette of our detective hero Stone; I’m not overly familiar with the tradition of film noir, but it immediately set me in that atmosphere and captured my imagination!
My first huge special mention I feel needs to go the orchestra: Allan Cox (Drums and Percussion), Laurence Ungless (Double Bass/Bass Guitar), Gavin Mallett and Mick Goulden (Trumpets), Jon Stokes (Trombone), Chris Traves (Trombone & Bass Trombone), Rupert Widdows (Alto Saxophone, Flute, Piccolo, Clarinet) Steve Pierce (Tenor Saxophone, Clarinet, Flute) and Jay Craig (Baritone Saxophone, Clarinet and Bass Clarinet), who even though they are unseen ,with Gareth MD-ing and also on Keyboards, manage to make Coleman’s score swell to all it’s majestic, spine tingly inducing glory. When Hadley very kindly caught up with me after the show, he asked if I was familiar with the score and mentioned how great it would be if the orchestra were able to share the same space, and I can’t help but agree, with the standard being as brilliant as it was and giving me goosebumps when it’s in its current set up, I can just imagine how incredible it would sound in a bigger theatre!
One of the things I enjoyed most about City of Angels is that even though we have our heroes in Stine and Stone, it struck me as being very much an ensemble piece, with some members of the cast playing different roles depending on whether we were in reality or fiction and each has their moment to shine, with brilliant performances across the board. Brace yourself, this section is probably going to get a little lengthy…
Sandra Marvin, Jennifer Saayeng, Kadiff Kirwan and Jo Servi are the Angel City Four, a group of singers who brilliantly scat and harmonise their way through the piece, helping keep the atmosphere trucking along and also popping up periodically in smaller roles. I particularly enjoyed their appearance when they are recording backing vocals for Stay with Me and they’re on their 34th take, their expressions spoke volumes and made me laugh so much. Speaking of the latter number, I must also give a mention to Tim Walton as Jimmy Powers, whose gorgeous croon made that song one of those from the show that is happily still stuck in my head days later.
Nick Cavaliere and Adam Fogerty do a great job as Sonny and Big Six, hired goons and later appearing as studio guards in the second act; here I must also mention the talents of Fight Director Brent Yount for his work with them,Tam and Hadley; stage combat to me always seems like it’s an incredibly difficult skill to master and something that takes a great deal of practise and patience, but these guys made it look so impressive and effortless, hats off to you, folks!
Marc Elliot was a huge surprise to me, especially as Munoz. I don’t mean this in a negative way, only that this was my first opportunity to see him on stage and was therefore very impressed. Munoz has moments of great fierce tenacity and once again I was made to feel incredibly grateful for where my wheelchair is allowed to sit in comparison to most of the bigger West End theatres: there’s a scene where he is venting his jealousy of Stone where I was inches away from Marc. His expression and the way he delivered a particular line sent shivers up my spine. He also dances up a storm during All You Have To Do Is Wait. Special kudos also to Mark Penfold who as Luther Kingsley spends the majority of his time in an iron lung, and Cameron Cuffe as Peter Kingsley who, although seen sparingly tackled his scenes with great charm and aplomb.
In terms of musical theatre, one of the things I’ve noticed that sometimes puzzles me is that I tend to generally always find the male characters interest me more and that I feel more of an emotional connection to them. City of Angels features a cast of wonderfully dynamic women in both reality and fiction; which I found tremendously refreshing! A special mention to Poppy Hall (Costume Supervisor), Karleigh Williams (Wigs Mistress) and all at Campbell Young Associates for not only keeping the guys (Tam especially) looking very dapper but the ladies were all sultry and sizzling with wardrobes to die for; Bobbi’s dress in particular had me green with envy, Rosalie looked flawless!
Katherine Kelly plays Alaura Kingsley, and she looked like she is having a ball playing the ‘femme fatale’ every good film noir needs. As I was only familiar with her television work, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I found in her portrayal was incredible charm and wit that meant my eyes were drawn to her throughout. Her duet with Stone (The Tennis Song) was a particular highlight of mine, oozing playfulness and playing on Alaura’s sexuality. Stone notes when he first encounters her that: ‘The Only thing keeping her legs going on forever, was the floor’, a line that amused me greatly not only simply because it made me laugh, but because it highlights what I loved most about her and the representation of women generally in the traditional film noir: the women know that sexuality is a construct, and if they use it correctly, they can wrap the men round their little fingers.
Samantha Barks’s Mallory Kingsley also plays with this idea and even though her appearance is minor in the grand scheme of things, I enjoyed seeing Sam in a role which reminded me so much of the first time I saw her (Sally Bowles in Cabaret) where she could let loose and be a little naughty, and it was a pleasure to hear her sing again.
Since the first time I saw her back in 2012 in Finding Neverland, Rosalie Craig has blown me away, here being no exception. I have seen her a couple of times since singing at her now husband’s concerts, but I’ve been desperate for a chance to see her in character again. A total starlet as both Bobbi (Stone’s love interest) and Gabbi (Stine’s wife), I loved how she had the opportunity to be both fierce and vulnerable and I enjoyed the chemistry she shared with both Hadley and Tam. Her vocals soar and are a joy as always, but if I had to pick a highlight I’d go with her solo turn of Every Breath I Take, it gave me goosebumps and the atmosphere was electric as we all sat enraptured by her!
Rebecca Trehearn was a completely new face and voice for me, and I hope this won’t be the first and last opportunity I have to see her perform. She plays Stone’s loyal ‘Girl Friday’ and Secretary Oolie, and Buddy’s Secretary Donna, and in both she brings wonderful warmth and a subtle, loveable sass. Her smile is infectious and her rendition of You Can Always Count on Me made me smile no end.
Speaking of smile inducing performances, hats off to Peter Polycarpou as the Hollywood royalty Buddy Fidler. This production marks the fourth I have seen him in, and each and every single time I marvel at the innate gift he seems to have in making me grin like a Chesire Cat, thanks to his humour and how animated and expressive he is a performer. That in mind, I think a part like Buddy fits him like a glove: he gets to have fun and be ‘larger than life’, the way I imagine a 1940’s producer- director would be – everything was ‘beauuu-tiful’, or ‘Stine, BABY!’ and tinged with an ever growing ego. The latter of which was of course meant to be irritating, but in my case was also infinitely endearing! There were numerous occasions where I would burst into fits of giggles, I think the gentleman next to me found that just as amusing as what was happening onstage as every so often he’d catch my eye and grin. Buddy also has great moments of wisdom, my personal favourite being ‘Everyone’s in a movie. Sometimes we just turn the camera on.’
Stine our novelist hero is bought to life by a firm favourite of mine, Hadley Fraser. What I love about the role is that it’s so versatile in terms of personality; Stine is this loveable mix of arrogance and insecurity and it was a pleasure to watch him sink his teeth into a role that he grows and develops as the show goes on, from the infectious enthusiasm of Double Talk to his heart wrenching bitterness in Funny. Whatever the situation, Hadley performs with the intensity, sincerity and charm that I have grown to always love his performances for, and like Tim’s Jimmy Powers, has a gorgeous liquid gold type croon that compliments the score perfectly. Tam Mutu has his star turn as Stone, Stine’s protagonist and fictional ‘better self’. The best way I can think of to describe the allure of the film noir detective is thus: men wish they were him, while women wish they were his a trope which Tam is able to bring out in bucketloads. I couldn’t get enough of his effortless charisma and swagger, but loved how he balanced it with moments of sweetness, vulnerability and humour. It had been six months prior to this that I’d last seen Tam in action, I’d almost forgotten how incredibly powerful his singing voice is, and dear god I’d missed it so!
What’s the upshot of putting together two of my favourite leading men as Creator and Creation, you ask? Well, in my opinion: nothing short of complete and utter brilliance. Stine and Stone’s relationship threw up for me all sorts of interesting questions about artistic integrity and how writer’s tell their stories, and the Act One showstopper, You’re Nothing Without Me brings this all to the fore, and won my heart for favourite sequence. After Stine commits yet another rewrite to his most controversial scene at Buddy’s demand, Stone, sick to the back teeth of Stine’s lack of backbone, berates him and the pair have an argument featuring some of the most witty insults I’ve ever heard commited to music. Hadley and Tam rant, jazz slide and stomp their way through Mear’s clever choreography, and Mclean’s inventive Projection pits black and white against colour in a battle for dominance. Throughout but particularly here the two demonstrate one of the most intense, believable and utterly magnificent examples of chemistry I’ve ever witnessed between male leads, with the blend of their voices also proving a killer combination.
City of Angels runs at The Donmar Warehouse until February 7th, 2015 and though the entire run is sold out, I’d implore everyone to try their hand at getting one of the theatre’s Barclay’s Front Row tickets, released on Mondays at 10am. It was a delight and a privilege to end my London theatrical adventures for 2014 with it.