Review: ‘City of Angels’ at SF Playhouse (****)

by Charles Kruger

city-of-angels.2

This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

So Larry Gelbart (Emmy-winner for “M*A*S*H” and screenwriter for “Tootsie”) knows from funny, and he’s no slacker on the sentiment, either. The premise is great: the show simultaneously follows the story of a novelist working on a screenplay adaptation of his book, while the screenplay itself is acted out simultaneously on an upstage platform. As the stories develop, the characters move from one setting to the other, as life and the movies become comically intertwined.

Like I say, kid, it’s a good premise, but what makes the thing really rock is the execution: a wonderfully witty script, a great jazz score, clever and capable actors, and—especially—a convincing and magical recreation of a noir movie onstage. It is no wonder this thing won Tonys.

And we are fortunate that after a twenty-five year absence from our city by the Bay, it is the San Francisco Playhouse that is staging a revival. The SF Playhouse, and designer & director Bill English, is particularly distinguished in two areas: remarkable set designs and a special expertise in musical revivals. They’ve put their best on display here.

The cast of "City of Angels." Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.
The cast of “City of Angels.” Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli.

English’s set is amazing, along with Michael Oesh’s sound design—the noir feel in both the “real life” and movie sequences is positively uncanny. Add to that the period costumes by Melissa Torchia, wigs and makeup by Tabbitha McBride, and a sound design that evokes old time radio by J. K. Hulsker (who also did the projections) and you get magic.

All of this, good as it is, would not a great production make without superior performances, and, baby, they got’em. As the put-upon novelist/screenwriter Stine, Jeffrey Brian Adams is funny and campy when necessary, but also subtle and emotionally true. Bay area theatre goers know that Adams is an actor of unusual range, equally at home in classic American dramas and musical comedy. He brings his full toolkit to this role and the result is delightful. Monique Hafen is super as the tough broad who works for the private eye in the screenplay, and the Hollywood producer in “real life,” and Caitlin Taylor as the cheating screenwriter’s loving but clear-sighted wife is wonderful.

Ryan Drummond as a smart but pushy Hollywood producer and Rudy Guerrero as an angry cop are desperately funny and keep the audience laughing whenever they open their mouths.

The supporting players support with gusto and the orchestra swings.

You’ll have a good time visiting this “City.” But one caveat: the staging is impressive from any angle, but less so if you find yourself seated to the side. For the full effect, try to get a seat close to the center of the house.

“City of Angels” plays at San Francisco Playhouse through September 17th. For further information click here

Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.
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“City of Angels,” music by Cy Coleman, Lyrics by David Zippel. Book by Larry Gelbart. Director: Bill English. Choreographer: Morgan Dayley. Music Director: Dave Dobrusky. Set: Bill English. Lighting: Michael Oesch. Sound Designer: Theodore J. H. Hulsker. Costumes: Melissa Torchia. Wigs & Make up:Tabbitha McBride. Projections: Theodore J. H. Hulsker. Fight Choreographer: Mike “Miguel” Martinez. Orchestral Reduction: Mary Chun.

Cast: 

Stone: Brandon Dahlquist. Donna (Oolie)/Angel City 4: Monique Hafen. Carla (Altaura): Nanci Zoppi. Stine: Jeffrey Brian Adams. Buddy (Irwin): Ryan Drumond. Gabby (Bobbi)/Angel City 4: Caitlan Taylor. Pancho (Munoz) /Rudy Guerrero. Avril (Mallory)/Margie: Samantha Rose. Jimmy Powers/Peter: John Paul Gonzalez. Angel City 4: Ken Brill. angel City 4: William Giammona. Swing: Nicole Frydman. Swing: Ryan Mardesich.

Orchestra:

Piano: Dave Dobrusky. Synthesizer: Sylvia Chen. Tania Johnson. Bass: Ian Early. Max Judelson. Drums: Geneva Harrison. Andrew McGuire. Woodwinds: Nick DiScala. Audrey Jackson. Trumpet: Justin Smith.

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