I want to be very positive about "City of Angels." Not because I enjoyed it. But because I know the American musical is in trouble and I know critics are credited with its perilous condition. And just because I didn't have a good time, why should I assume you won't?
Maybe you'll admire Larry Gelbart's cleverness more than I did. Maybe you won't grow as tired of his plot as quickly as I did. It's the story of a young New York writer in Hollywood in the '30s doing a screen adaptation of his best-selling crime novel.
Maybe you won't feel that trundling back and forth between the writer's personal life and his screenplay, which often reflects that life, is as tiresome as watching a lazy game of tennis. Maybe, because you haven't already seen two spoofs of Hollywood detective movies this year, you'll be more charmed than I was by the contrived parody of the Raymond Chandler style.
There may be some things we can agree on. Gelbart, who knows Hollywood all too well, has adroitly lampooned the producers' mentality. "I'm your biggest fan," his maniacal producer tells the young writer. "I've read a synopsis of everything you've ever written." Played with smarmy finesse by Rene Auberjonois, this caricature may be the one whose entrances you'll welcome.
But I fear you won't find any of the other characters any more interesting or attractive than I did. Ultimately they're all paper-thin, and although James Naughton has a certain tough presence as the gumshoe and Gregg Edelman a modest puppy-dog charm as the writer, I'm afraid neither will capture your sympathies.
Nor, I'm afraid, will the women. With the exception of a sharp secretary winningly played by Randy Graff, the female characters are a stereotyped, hard-boiled bunch. Dee Hoty, Kay McClelland and Rachel York handle their cheerless tasks well.
Will you enjoy Cy Coleman's score? It has bounce and verve. I found some of his parodies of '40s standards, particularly "Stay With Me," captivating. You might feel, as I did, that David Zippel's lyrics strain for cleverness, as when they rhyme "fertile lies" with "fertilize." You might enjoy hanging around to hear the orchestra do a jazzy rendition of the score as the audience leaves. I did. The wordless tunes have an appeal they lack in the show, when both music and lyrics work hard to serve an overcomplicated plot.
I hope that you're sophisticated enough not to expect dancing in a contemporary musical. You might imagine that one dance number might provide some release from the show's predictable rhythms. Don't be unreasonable.
Robin Wagner's sets, grayish for the movie scenes, creamy colored for "real life," help clarify the action. So do Florence Klotz' splashy costumes. Maybe you've never seen a sendup of Hollywood before. Maybe this will strike you as fresh. Don't let me stop you.
You enter the Virginia Theater and you notice that the proscenium arch has been decorated all the way out to the balcony to resemble the Paramount Lot in Hollywood - but with its toy buildings stuck boldly on the wall it also resembles those architectural fantasies of the big movie-palaces of the '30s and '40s. A decorative double-whammy!
Taste, resonance and imagination - these are three of the prime characteristics of the new musical "City of Angels" that opened there last night, and already you have had a foretaste before the curtain rises.
Even the overture - which is scat singing suggesting a heavenly choir of Mel Tormes - promises nostalgia with a difference, and, indeed, "City of Angels" is definitely, almost defiantly, both nostalgic and different.
It is also funny, ingenious and lots of other good things. The one thing it doesn't completely do is work. It's elaboration seems too often an end in itself, and even its wit is more clever than funny, and more slick/smart than either.
What we have here are a bunch of ideas searching for fulfillment, so even while the musical is brilliantly pleasing on one level, it seems to be disappointing on another. Another double-whammy!
Larry Gelbart's book controls the show - indeed it really seems more like a play with music than a musical, a feeling oddly reinforced by the wholly admirable fact that David Zippel's lyrics are totally at one with the mood, tone and texture of Gelbart's verbal gymnastics.
Cy Coleman's actual music rarely rises above the incidental, and although its jazzy pastiches of '40s Hollywood are dazzling, they are also oddly unmemorable. You remember their success more than their melodies. Odd.
But the concept of the musical - yes, Virginia Theater, there is a concept musical - almost falls over itself in its dichotomous ingenuity. For here we have, as it were, a musical playing on two screens, only one of which is reel, while the other is only real.
Listen carefully. Gelbart's hero is a successful crime writer (a tough and classy one - league of Chandler or Hammett) taken to Hollywood to adapt one of his novels into a movie.
This is the story of that adaptation - but is also the adaptation itself, for there are two casts of characters (most of the actors have a foot in each cast) and both storylines run parallel when they are not getting mixed up.
But these people are smart. Either Gelbart, or his fantastic director Michael Blakemore, or his fantasticated designers Robin Wagner (sets) and Florence Klotz (costumes), have come up with the idea of putting the movie scenes in black and white (they cheat once in a while with a little red lipstick) while preserving color for reality. Neat.
And you haven't seen anything yet. Sometimes Blakemore moves real actors into a filmed background with a skill we haven't witnessed since Josef Svoboda first demonstrated the technique with his "Laterna Magika" 30 years ago.
When the author hero (Stine - Gregg Edelman) rewrites lines for his movie hero (Stone - James Naughton, a Bogart-hope-alike in a trench-coat) Blakemore has the movie cast move into reverse movement and doggerel as the scene is rewound.
Gelbart most adroitly feeds lines and jokes from one part of the action into the other, just as the characters themselves run oddly, but reverberatingly, in harness from one plane to the other.
And at the end - when the frustrated novelist, finally walking out after weeks of selling out, finds an epiphanous union with his equally abandoned fictional alter ego - Gelbart finally gets his two halves together. Once more, smart.
Gelbart's dialogue and, with their sincerest form of flattery, Zippel's lyrics, are so hard-boiled they are almost cracked, and the wit is as light-handed as a machine-gun.
Yet all of this is still backed with that taste, resonance and imagination which was all super-evident from the start of the show and never actually flags.
The evening - thanks largely to Wagner - looks wonderful, and Blakemore has given it a style that helps zip up the flaws, and a zip that emphasizes the style.
The performers are a little more variable - but it is always difficult to create characters as movie caricatures and then expect them to be more than stereotypical.
However, the cast is good - note not only Gregg Edelman's staunchly confused author, but also a ditsily hard-bitten Randy Graff, a more smoothly hard-bitten Dee Hoty and a long-suffering Kay McClelland - and in two instances it is show-stopping.
Rene Auberjnois has never been better as an odious but oddly engaging, smart-assed movie mogul (full of sub-Goldwynisms and sound movie sense), and James Naughton, tough-edged and soft-centered, is marvelously convincing as a private eye with a public conscience.
There's nothing novel about show-stopping songs and performances in Broadway musicals, but how long has it been since a musical was brought to a halt by riotous jokes? If you ask me, one would have to travel back to the 1960's - to ''Bye Bye Birdie,'' ''A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,'' ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'' and ''Little Me'' - to find a musical as flat-out funny as ''City of Angels,'' the new show about old Hollywood that arrived last night at the Virginia Theater.
This is an evening in which even a throwaway wisecrack spreads laughter like wildfire through the house, until finally the roars from the balcony merge with those from the orchestra and the pandemonium takes on a life of its own. Only the fear of missing the next gag quiets the audience down. To make matters sweeter, the jokes sometimes subside just long enough to permit a show-stopping song or performance or two to make their own ruckus at center stage.
Since the musical's principal creators are the writer Larry Gelbart and the composer Cy Coleman - pros who worked separately on ''Forum'' and ''Little Me'' early in their careers - the exhilarating result cannot really be called a surprise. Yet Mr. Gelbart and Mr. Coleman, invigorated with the try-anything brio of first-time collaborators half their age, bring the audience one unexpected twist after another. Only the territory of ''City of Angels'' is familiar: the late 1940's Hollywood romanticized in hard-boiled detective fiction and ruled by tyrannical studio moguls who seemed to give nearly every movie a title like ''Three Guys Named Joe.''
To take comic possession of the entire sprawling cultural landscape -to mock not just the period's movies but also the men behind the movies -Mr. Gelbart stages a two-pronged satirical attack. His hero, Stine (Gregg Edelman), is a novelist trying against considerable odds to turn his own book, ''City of Angels,'' into a screenplay that will not be an embarrassing sellout. But as Mr. Gelbart tracks Stine's travails in the film industry -where the ''envy is so thick you can cut it with a knife lodged in every other back'' - he also presents the hard-knock adventures of Stone, the Philip Marlowe-Sam Spade-like private eye of Stine's screenplay in progress and, in James Naughton's wonderfully wry performance, a comic shamus who is the stuff that dreams are made of.
There is no end to the cleverness with which the creators of ''City of Angels'' carry out their stunt of double vision, starting with a twin cast list (a Hollywood Cast and a Movie Cast) in the Playbill. Robin Wagner's extraordinarily imaginative set design - maybe the most eloquent argument yet against coloring old movies - uses the lush black-and-white of a pristine Warner Brothers print for the Stone sequences and candied Technicolor for Stine's off-camera adventures. Because the Stine and Stone narratives have their ironic parallels - fiction's thugs and temptresses often resemble Hollywood's movers and shakers - the ''City of Angels'' actors frequently play dual roles, shifting continually between color and black-and-white settings and characters. In one spectacular turn that rocks the second act, the winning Randy Graff, as a loyal secretary to both Stone and Stine, leaps across the color barrier to belt out her blues as the other woman in two male lives.
Such tricks are brilliantly abetted not just by Mr. Wagner and his fellow designers Florence Klotz and Paul Gallo but also by the director Michael Blakemore, who juggles the farcical collisions between reality and soundstage as deftly as he did the on- and offstage shenanigans of ''Noises Off.'' With occasional injections of stock period film, ''City of Angels'' re-creates the swirling flashbacks, portentous tracking shots and swift dissolves of movies like ''The Maltese Falcon'' and ''The Big Sleep'' even as it wallows in the kitschy glamour of nouveau-riche Bel Air mansions where the conversation is ''never at a loss for numbers.''
Mr. Gelbart's jokes come in their own variety of colors. As in his screenplay for ''Movie Movie,'' he is a master at parodying vintage film genres - in this case finding remarkably fresh ways to skewer the sardonic voice-over narration, tough-guy talk and heavy-breathing imagery (''It's as though I was hit by a wrecking ball wearing a pinky ring'') of the Chandler-Hammett film noir. But the funniest lines in ''City of Angels'' may well be those that assault the movie business - as personified by Buddy Fidler (Rene Auberjonois), an egomaniacal producer and director at Master Pictures, the same fictional studio that Mr. Gelbart accused of money-laundering in his Iran-contra satire, ''Mastergate.''
There are no angels in this show's Hollywood. Next to Fidler's self-serving Goldwynisms - ''You can tell a writer every time: words, words, words!'' he complains - the mixed metaphors of Stone's narration and the obfuscating double talk of the ''Mastergate'' polticians almost make sense. In Mr. Auberjonois's gleefully smarmy performance, Fidler congratulates himself on his philanthropic largess while destroying Stine's script in the interests of commerce or blacklist-era political cowardice. As he revises, the rewrites are carried out in the black-and-white flesh on stage, complete with mimed rewinding of the footage bound for the cutting-room floor. ''You're Nothing Without Me'' goes the title of the high-flying duet for Stine and Stone, but, in Mr. Gelbart's jaundiced view, the writer and his fictional alter ego are both nothing next to the greedy bully with casting approval, screenplay-credit envy and final cut.
As the jokes leaven the book's rage until the bitter final number, so does Mr. Coleman's score - a delirious celebration of jazz and pop styles sumptuously orchestrated by Billy Byers and blared out by a swinging pit band led by Gordon Lowry Harrell. Mr. Coleman uses a scat-singing vocal quartet reminiscent of the Modernaires as a roving chorus; he freely mixes be-bop with wild Count Basie blasts, sentimental radio crooning (well done by Scott Waara) and smoky soundtrack music reminiscent of David Raskin's score for ''Laura.'' The effect is like listening to ''Your Hit Parade'' of 1946, except that the composer's own Broadway personality remakes the past in his own effervescent, melodic style.
Though the young and talented lyricist David Zippel keeps up with Mr. Coleman's often intricate music, he only occasionally catches up with Mr. Gelbart's endlessly witty wordplay. His biggest success is Ms. Graff's song ''You Can Always Count on Me,'' which recalls the sophisticated sass of the female solos Mr. Coleman once wrote with the lyricists Carolyn Leigh and Dorothy Fields. By contrast, Mr. Zippel's double-entendre duet for Stone and his femme-fatale client (Dee Hoty) is collegiate, and Mr. Auberjonois's big Act I solo isn't as biting about Hollywood as the dialogue surrounding it.
For all that's right about ''City of Angels,'' one must also question the casting of Mr. Edelman, a powerful singer whose affable boyishness seems inappropriate and anachronistic for a hard-edged 40's novelist like Stine. It's hard to believe he could have created a character as worldly as Mr. Naughton's Stone, a Bogart incarnation that, for once, is not an impersonation. The show could also use much more dancing, a less arbitrarily plotted and more musical second act and a livelier heroine than the lost love (for Stone) and temporarily lost wife (for Stine) decently played by Kay McClelland.
In the large supporting cast, special attention must be paid - and will be, since she first appears wearing only a sheet - to Rachel York, who sings a torrid seduction number (''Lost and Found'') in Act I before serving as a self-promoting starlet in Act II. As Stone says in somber voice-over when describing another Hollywood siren, ''Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever.'' With lines like that, I, for one, would have been happy if ''City of Angels'' had gone on just as long.