A quartet starts the show by scatting in harmony. Nonsense “ba da da das” spill out of their mouths in unison. What starts as an ode to the Manhattan Transfer crescendos into a vocal evocation of a film noir symphonic prologue. We’re about to enter L.A. county circa 1948. Our companions are a few femme fatales and the strong, square jawline of a private detective named Stone. And a screenwriter named Stine.
It turns out that Stine, not Stone, is the author of this story, or, more accurately, this screenplay. Stone is Stine’s invention: he’s working for a Hollywood producer, finishing the screenplay in real time as the play unfolds in front of us. The musical employs all the dead tropes from an exhausted genre only to transform them into jazz-inflected scenes of ever-increasing farce. City of Angels is every film noir you’ve ever seen but infused with high-octane shots of cheekiness and song.
[jump] The set design visually separates the two narratives (fictional vs. non). Sometimes the storylines overlap but they’re always reflecting back on each other. This makes it sound more complicated than it is. The center of the stage is framed by a giant cutout of a movie frame. When Stone and his noir co-stars appear inside it, their costumes are reduced to blacks, grays and whites. The lighting is colder too and summons up a chill in the atmosphere.
At the front of the stage and below the frame, Stine’s story takes place in color. The cast is dressed in warmer hues and lit with a golden glow. The original production on Broadway divided the stage in half so that the stories happened side by side. Although the front end of the staging seems cramped at times, and the noir world a bit distant, SF Playhouse’s production is pleasantly nimble. The concept of parallel worlds and dualism works.
As Stine tries to figure out what to do with Stone, we’re introduced to both sets of supporting characters. The amount of doubling that occurs is enough to rival that famous shattered mirror scene with Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai. Monique Hafen plays Donna and Oolie: both under-appreciated secretaries. Caitlan Taylor is Gabby and Bobbi, a wife and a troubled chanteuse. And then there was Nanci Zoppi, as Carla and Alaura, who not only had the best lines but delivered them with verve and panache. Was there a smidgen of Karen Walker from Will & Grace? Yes, and the audience ate up every bit of it.
But City of Angels provided a fair and equal opportunity for every performer to stand out. Hafen managed to belt out the underlying pathos in “You Can Always Count on Me.” Taylor offered an unapologetic rendition of “It Needs Work.” Ryan Drummond milked every delicious ounce of unctuousness out of “The Buddy System.” And Rudy Guerrero as Munoz, took “All Ya Have to Do is Wait” to the finest edge of black comedy.
All of these numbers were high points but the most memorable tune of the night brought the two leads, and alter egos, together to harmonize on “You’re Nothing Without Me.” As Stone, Brandon Dahlquist’s resonant baritone was in fine form: he hit every note with ease and feeling. When Jeffrey Brian Adams as Stine sang the duet with him, they found a perfect blend, making the song memorable and hummable on the way out to intermission.
The parallel plot lines diverge at the midpoint: the noir gets sillier and the real gets serious. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect and it lends the entire songbook a bit more gravitas in retrospect. But City of Angels is mostly light as a feather, and delightfully so.
City of Angels, Through September 17 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post, 415-677-9596.