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Review – “City of Angels” at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma – by Harry Duke

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REVIEW – “City of Angels” at Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma – by Harry Duke

So I drove up the hill, parked my boiler out back, and headed in. The place was lousy with grub and giggle juice. Mr. Big was chinning away to a room full of Janes and Jaspers about his “big plan”. Soon some dame came by and handed me my ducat. Next thing I knew, everyone was up on their walking sticks and heading to the Big Show…


 

EXTENDED! City of Angels added dates at Cinnabar.  Its current production of City of Angels is so popular that it’s been extended for an extra week extended through September 27
Reserve seats online at any time by visiting cinnabartheater.org, or call the box office at 707-763-8920 between 10 AM and 3 PM on weekdays.  


 

In a pre-show presentation to some guests at a recent performance of Cinnabar Theater’s City of Angels, director Nathan Cummings repeatedly used such terms as “problematic”, “difficult”, and “challenging” to describe his mounting of the show. More telling, Cummings admitted to not being particularly knowledgeable about “film noir”, which is perhaps not the best place to start when producing a show designed to be an homage to the genre. The end result is the weakest production I have seen in a long time from the usually reliable Cinnabar.

City of Angels is a jazz musical with a book by Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H*, Tootsie), music by Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Barnum) and lyrics by David Zippel (Disney’s Hercules and Mulan). Set in Hollywood in the 1940’s, it’s the story of a young pulp novelist named Stine (Domonic Tracy) and his adventures in Hollywood while adapting one of his crime novels for the screen. Stine is having a hard time balancing a wife (Kelly Britt), a mistress (Cary Ann Rosko), and meddling Hollywood producer Buddy Fidler (Spencer Dodd) as he tries to hold on to his cushy $5,000 a week writing job and maintain his artistic integrity.

The cast of City of Angels

The hook to this show is the play-within-the-play; or rather the movie-within-the-play, as Stine’s script comes to life on stage. Stine’s Hollywood escapades are paired with his detective alter-ego Stone (James Pfeiffer) and his latest case involving an iron lung-bound millionaire (Warren Theuret), his years-younger wife (Maria Mikheyenko), and a missing step-daughter (Krista Joy Serpa). All characters (other than Stone) are played by the same actors from the “modern” story, meaning most performers had “double duty”.

The hook to the hook is that the detective story is done in black and white – sets, costumes, and projections, or at least it should be. The inconsistent execution of this crucial and clever design component was just one of many areas in which this production fell short.

Cary Ann Rosko, James PfeifferDual stories require dual sets, and while Wayne Hovey’s set design involving dual revolving stages would seem to be a step in the right direction, it was undone by the cheap set dressings placed upon them. The Hollywood mogul’s office looked like something from Poverty Row. Stine's hotel room didn’t look like a place where someone making 5K a week in 1940’s Hollywood would stay. There were also a couple of jarringly anachronistic set pieces (and hair styles) that made maintaining the conceptual mood or theme difficult. Good job on the iron lung, though.

Costuming was also inconsistent. The woman are often dressed in terrific period pieces that one could imagine Joan Crawford being draped in, but then a character would walk on stage in a piecemeal police uniform that just looked terrible.

Perhaps the most problematic issue with this production is the casting, starting with the character of Stone. While Mr. Pfeiffer has the look of a Sam Spade or a Philip Marlowe type, his Stone possesses none of the character. He is stiff, both physically and vocally. Noir detectives were often weary as a result of being physically and emotionally beaten down by the world in which they existed. They survived by scraping by on the misfortunes of others. This weariness was often expressed not only through the dialogue they delivered but in how they delivered it. Pfeiffer’s monotonous delivery and rigid physicality lacked everything we expect from a noir protagonist. This may be a reflection of the director’s inexperience with the genre.

Maria MikheyenkoDisparate acting styles and levels of talent added to the overall sense of inconsistency that permeated this production. Some roles were played as caricatures instead of characters; others seemed to “get it.” Gelbart’s snappy dialogue often fell flat due to its delivery. The women seemed to fare far better than the men, with quality work done by Maria Mikheyenko as the film’s femme fatale, Kelly Britt as Stine’s wife (and Stone’s ex-wife) and particularly Cary Ann Rosko as Stone’s loyal secretary and producer Fidler’s long-suffering assistant. Rosko’s characters stood head and shoulders above the rest in terms of believability and period/genre-appropriateness.

On a positive note, Mary Chun does her usual fine job of musical direction and her Angel City Band handled the jazz-based score well. Good musical support also came from the Angel City Four, a musical quartet featuring Anna L. Joham, Michelle Pagano, Jacob Thompson and Stephen Walsh who performed throughout the show. These bursts of music and energy were bright spots among an overall lackluster production.

City of Angels may have been simply too “big” a show for Cinnabar to pull off. With so much going on in such a small space and with so many technical and conceptual issues with which to deal, Cummings might have found himself having to spend more time “managing traffic” than directing. It’s a shame, because as a fan of classic Hollywood with an appreciation of the genre, it was a production to which I was really looking forward.

Well, that’s the drop. Sorry to have to drop a dime and put the screws on this show, but gotta be square when I spill. Time for me to take it on the heel and toe. I’ll be back, though, ‘cause Cinnabar is a joint that usually hits on all eights. That’s the way it is in the City of Eggs…

City of Angels

through September 27

Friday @ 8pm / Saturday @ 8pm / Sunday @ 2pm

Cinnabar Theater
3333 Petaluma Blvd N
Petaluma, CA 94952

(707) 763-8920

www.cinnabartheater.org

Photos by Eric Chazankin

Live Theater Reviews by Harry Duke