WATERTOWN — In the dual world of the musical “City of Angels,” atmosphere is everything. But despite a terrific group of singer-actors, FUDGE Theatre Company struggles in the Arsenal Center for the Arts’ black box theater to create both the “real” world of Hollywood in the 1940s and the “reel” world of characters from a hard-boiled detective novel emerging on film.
“City of Angels” combines Cy Coleman’s jazzy, 1940s-infused score — which includes a big band sound, a harmonizing quartet of radio crooners, jazzy scat singing, and pop — and book writer Larry Gelbart’s snappy one-liners. The story follows the travails of Stine, a novelist who’s been lured to Hollywood by the opportunity to turn his Dashell Hammett-esque tale into a lucrative screenplay. As Stine (Kyle W. Carlson) grapples with the required rewrites, the action shifts into the film-noir landscape of his characters, particularly his private eye, Stone (Jared Troilo), as they play out the detective drama.
Gelbart delights in skewering Hollywood’s determination to crush creativity, which he personifies in Buddy Fidler (a wonderfully comic Dan Goldstone), an egocentric studio mogul who proudly admits to reading a synopsis of every book the novelist has ever written, and who demands rewrites quickly so that he can then rewrite them. As the screenplay evolves, one of the musical’s clever effects includes having the action stop, the characters speak gibberish as if a soundtrack is being rewound, and then replaying the scene with the rewrites.
With the help of James Petty’s pivoting set piece, we shift from the colorful world of the Hollywood studio to the black-and-white film-noir world of Stine’s characters. The center section of that set piece is dominated by a large Venetian blind, a great nod to atmospheric film-noir lighting, and there are some sublime moments when the performers shift from one role to the other simply by passing through this center area.
But Gelbart’s farce requires precision timing as the plot twists both within and between the real and imagined worlds, and director Joey DeMita can’t quite navigate these transitions. Too many opportunities to create sharp contrasts are lost, and scenes and characters become muddied.
Fortunately, the ensemble delivers knockout performances, particularly AnneMarie Alvarez as the mogul’s secretary, Donna, and Stone’s secretary, Oolie. Her solo “You Can Always Count on Me” is a highlight, as is “What You Don’t Know About Women,” her duet with Lori L’Italien, who plays the novelist’s wife and the fictional character’s love interest. Troilo, as the fictional Stone, is also outstanding, and his duet with his creator, “You’re Nothing Without Me,” is a great showcase for both Troilo and Carlson.
Conductor Steven Bergman may only have six players in his orchestra, but they deliver such a rich sound, with particularly crisp performances on the trumpet and trombone, that it feels like many more.
FUDGE Theatre Company deserves credit for taking on a musical as complex as “City of Angels,” but director DeMita’s reach exceeds his grasp.