When City of Angels ran at the 1,100+ seat Prince of Wales Theatre, opening and closing in 1993, it seemed moderately entertaining, but it left little lasting impression on me. Seeing it again now at the 200+ seat Donmar, where all its intricate details are brought to vivid life, the earlier production seems like a classic case of right show, wrong venue. The book’s plot lines operate on (at least) three levels, here we get a staging on two levels and, overall, what is revealed is a show which takes the art of musical theatre to a whole new level. Stine (Hadley Fraser) is is a writer of 1940’s Los Angeles-based crime novels, Stone (Tam Mutu) is his fictional detective and Buddy (Peter Polycarpou) is the unscrupulous film producer/director for whom Stine is adapting one of his stories. As we see the writer’s tortuous battle against commercial pressures and the enactment of his evolving screenplay (written partly in flashback), the show becomes both a sharp satire on Hollywood and an affectionate pastiche of film noir. Complicated? Well not exactly Mamma Mia! Cy Coleman’s gorgeous jazz-influenced score is beautifully performed by Gareth Valentine’s 11-player orchestra and both Larry Gelbert’s book and David Zippel’s lyrics sizzle with the cynical wit and acerbic one-liners which characterise film noir. Director Josie Rourke’s production has all the style, wit and invention to match the material – The upper set is Stine’s office with reams of paper piled high across the width of the theatre and the lower set is an adaptable stage used for all the action and choreography; skilful use of projections, scenery and props flying in an out from every direction, all make sure that the pace never slackens and that the eye is feasted as much as the ear. The male leads are superb and the Stine/Stone duet on You’re Nothing Without Me is a knockout routine that can only be followed by the interval. However, Rourke has also managed to cream off some of the finest female talent currently working in British musical theatre to play the various femmes fatale – Samantha Barks, Rosalie Craig, Katherine Kelly and Rebecca Trehearn all in one show – Wow! Individually, they all get their turn in the spotlight to seduce and bewitch us and, collectively, they are dazzling. This production is nothing less than a total triumph for the Donmar and for Josie Rourke personally.
Performance date: 20 December 2014