To be true to oneself requires a special kind of courage. In a world filled with exploiters and opportunists, a genuine authenticity – the kind that stands in the way of earning the ever-popular material reward – is often difficult to maintain. It directly challenges moguls, and all those who seek power.
It is the polar opposite of control and dominance. It is freedom; it is love; and it is, above all, an attuned, sage altruism that knows that it is fulfilling its purpose.
Sometimes, that purpose is to write.
At least it is for Stine, protagonist of the highly unconventional musical, “City of Angels.”
Half classic noir tale of intrigue, half writer’s journey toward realizing his true path, this vastly multilayered tale is rife with humor, pizazz and practically oozes with charisma.
This is precisely why it is performed so rarely. Requiring ultra-sharp cues and well-rehearsed takes, it straddles two seemingly opposing worlds while attempting to convey the creation of one in a manner both understandable and engaging.
As the writer deletes content, the characters within the fictional aspect of the story must move and speak backwards, which can either be enthralling or horrendous, depending on the effectiveness of its execution.
Luckily, the broads and cats at the Gallery Players were able to fill those roles with ease.
“City of Angels” follows Stine, a relatively famous writer of a noir series starring a character called Stone, who predictably has a soft spot for enigmatic ladies and a heart of gold veiled by a stunning veneer of snark and cynicism.
Stine is offered a chance to turn his famous novel into a screenplay – at which he jumps immediately – but producer-director Buddy Fidler keeps demanding changes. The audiences need a familiar story, so he has to tone down some originality. McCarthyism is in full swing, so the political allegory must be removed. Lieutenant Munoz can no longer hate Stone for the racial injustices of the times; now he must simply be jealous of his marriage to Bobbi.
Throughout all this, Stine persistently cheats on his wife, Gabby, with Donna, an assistant to Fidler, because he hates himself for being a puppet to the older man’s schemes – for selling his integrity and not being true to himself or his adored character.
As mentioned before, “City of Angels” is a gloriously complex piece, though it does not always come off as such due to its inherent wit. It’s genuinely fun, but when given deeper thought, it becomes obvious just how daunting a musical of this caliber is to produce.
Overwhelming credit absolutely must go to director Trey Compton, who tackled the difficulty of this remarkably deceptive production. Simply directing is not enough, however, as its cast bore a marked display of talent, as well – the most vibrant of whom were the leading men – mirror images of one another in one respect, polar opposites in another.
Danny Rothman and Jared Troilo shared the star billing as Stone and Stine, respectively. Nailing the noir niche neatly, Rothman was the emphasis of troubled cool as the hard-edged, soft-hearted private eye, while his non-fictional counterpart captured a delightful splash of neurosis as the conflicted Stine. A fraud in quite a few respects, he struggled to maintain dignity in spite of Fidler’s pressure to commercialize his beloved Stone.
In nearly every scene, Troilo shined with an endearingly believable vulnerability; just as Rothman exhibited a sense of rakish charisma missing from the stage and screen for too long – a relic from the days of dangerous dames and cool cats.
But this is a musical, after all, and its fierce pride is echoed was its vocalists – the best of whom were the Angel City 4 (Amanda Danskin, Caitlin Mesiano, Brian Mulay, J. Tyler Whitmer) – a group gathered specifically to dance, sing and act as Greek Chorus. James Ryan Sloan frequently joined them as the clueless crooner, Jimmy Powers – all voice, brash and no talent (though that can hardly be said for the highly admirable Sloan).
Playing the part of the conscience was Abby Stevens, doubling as Gabby and Bobbi, wife to Stine and Stone, respectively. She despises dishonesty and loses respect for her husband, rather that he “shoot himself than prostitute himself.” She leaves for New York, and he continues to wallow in guilty, adulterous misery. Stevens was, without a doubt, an asset to the cast. With a distinctly Susan Egan-esque voice and sassy, no-nonsense manner, the host body playing the respective wives of the protagonists proved that her counterparts are “nothing without her.”
But not all characters swim toward a happy medium. Case example: Donna (Blair Alexis Brown), the aforementioned assistant to Fidler. With an immediately noticeable slouch in her shoulders and distinct lack of elegance in her gait, the most loyal of the dramatis personae was also perhaps the most sympathetic – at least partly in due to the powerhouse vocals of Brown. She laments that her mistreatment at the hands of others is her own fault – she is simply too loyal to the wrong people.
But loyalty and pathos are not all that allow a character to shine. Lieutenant Munoz (Tony Castellanos) is a persona absolutely fed up with the stark hypocrisy of the blatantly racist police force. Years ago, Stone was convicted of a murder and simply stripped of his badge. If it had been a Hispanic American like him, he rages, he would have been executed. Possessing a fierce passion as well as ample comedic ability, Castellanos more than nailed the noir niche.
But a social allegory of this caliber would simply be too much trouble, the hysterically tyrannical Fidler (Greg Horton) attests. Several of his closest friends have already been blacklisted and he simply cannot risk such a risqué script. No, Munoz would have to have been in love with Bobbi – or something else equally hackneyed.
So Stine must keep being dishonest – must reject the urge for justice in his heart – that creative explosion of truth that compels him to fill each paper. But for how long?
In the end, that is precisely the message that Larry Gelbart attempts to send. We must be true to ourselves – must share the bursting, brimming secrets of our souls, regardless of their perceived value by a perpetually deteriorating audience. For a sincere creation of art, we must be perfectly honest.
After all, “can honesty be imperfect?”
Photo by Bella Muccari