From the company that launched their talents last year at Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre with an inventive production of Stephen Sondheim’s Passion, Life Like Company has returned with a brilliantly sexy and boldly sung production of City of Angels.
Local musical theatre diehards can celebrate because they’ve waited since 1989 for this multi Tony Award winning Broadway musical, composed by Cy Coleman with book by Larry Gelbart and lyrics by David Zippel, to have its Australian premiere.
The musical’s parallel story-telling is an ingenious structural blend of reality and fiction that incorporates numerous twin roles and tonnes of humour.
Crime writer Stine (Anton Berezin) is battling movie producer Buddy Fidler (Troy Sussman) to have his novel respectfully scripted for a movie while his novel’s protagonist, private investigator Stone (Kane Alexander) is battling a case he reluctantly takes on for the wealthy socialite Alaura Kingsley (Anne Wood) to find her missing daughter, Mallory Kingsley (Hannah Fredericksen). Within it, an accomplished Australian musical theatre cast slip effortlessly into their entertainingly stereotyped characters.
Set in 1940s Hollywood, the veneer of taste and glamour in front of and behind the cameras of the big studios, becomes a perfect platform, and a particularly satirised and lofty one, to stand up for one’s ideas, as Stine does, with help from his alter-ego Stone. In the end it’s a sweet victory for creative liberation.
There’s a laugh being looked for on every line in its relentlessly witty, sometimes plainly corny and cheekily innuendo-packed libretto. Act 1’s “The Tennis Song” pounds all three shamelessly. The laughs come patchily across the audience, saying much about what can’t be processed in time before the next gag is delivered. If you’re a first-timer, you might be pressed remembering more than a meagre few.
And just as the ego-centric Fidler demands cuts from Stine’s already “perfect” manuscript, the musical probably wouldn’t even suffer from a little trimming of its own. But, it’s hilarious!
How a creative team meet the challenge of building the picture by untwining the plot is almost unfathomable, yet director Martin Croft, with assistant director Theresa Borg and set designer Robert Alexander Smith, have done so remarkably, all the more so in the three weeks it took to bring the show to the stage.
Two raised micro-sets flank each side, one for Stine’s writing office and the other for Stone’s office and apartment. The “Hollywoodland” sign rolls across the hills in the distance while the centre stage is given a space for the plentiful scene changes. Tom Willis’s lighting captures Los Angeles’s sunset skies beautifully, together with the mystique of Stone’s fictional film noir setting against evocative Venetian-blind drops. With Kim Bishop’s keen 1940’s eye for elegance, the visual progressions are stunning.
Kellie Dickerson overlays it all with fine musical direction of Coleman’s snazzy, brass and wind prominent music. Her small pit of 13 musicians played big, shapely and as suavely as the cast performed on stage.
Berezin is impressive in equally presenting Stine as both insecure in the face of power and confident in the power of his writing. Stine is cheating on his wife Gabby (Chelsea Plumley) but Berezin elicits empathy via a burning drive in his performance of strong singing and huge endings.
The burnished-voice Alexander navigates his way easily around women and trouble with brawn, stealth and charm as Stone. And if he stripped to reveal a superhero costume it wouldn’t have been surprising.
Berezin and Alexander compliment each other superbly and they do so in song just as well with Act I’s “You’re Nothing Without Me” and again in Act II’s “I’m Nothing Without You”.
Perennially attached to a Cuban cigar, Sussman is a cracker as Fidler, Stine’s destroyer-of-dreams movie producer.
Amanda Harrison is a standout as Stine’s lover/Fidley’s secretary Donna in the real world, and as Stone’s Girl Friday, Oolie, in the film world which she slinks between in Act II’s fabulously enacted “You Can Always Count On Me”.
In Act I, Harrison and Plumley, as Oolie and Gabby, step out of their respective worlds to sing a riotously sensational rendition of “What You Don’t Know About Women”.
And you can see Adam Fiorentino bursting with Latino passion long before he shows what he’s got, apart from just about everything, in his big-moment song and hip-swinging number “All Ya Have to Do Is Wait” as the moustached Lieutenant Munoz.
It’s hard to believe the production will end after its current four-performance life. It feels much larger than this, so hopefully, this City of Angels will rise again.