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Not even the most valiant effort can redeem City of Angels

City of Angels

Kirkwood Community Center, Adams Avenue and Geyer Road

Call 314-821-9956.

Writers shouldn't be allowed to write writers as characters. No doubt there are exceptions to this rule, but too often the stories turn into overly talky diatribes about how nobody understands their work. Sadly, this is true of City of Angels, which gets lost in a big city of words and tangled plot lines. With 40 scenes, 21 actors, and a dozen or so crew members (not to mention an eight-piece band), the Kirkwood Theatre Guild has gone all out to present this mammoth musical. But the noble effort mostly falls flat, as the frustrating script and difficult music lead the troupe down a dark alley with little hope of rescue.

Larry Gelbart's book tells the story of a 1940s mystery writer, Stine, who's been hired by movie mogul Buddy Fidler to turn his novel into a film script. In the real world, Stine fights against Fidler's constant revisions and his own moral shortcomings, while in the parallel movie world, Stine's fictional private investigator, Stone, investigates a missing-person case that turns into murder. Almost every actor has a dual part -- one in the movie about Stone, and one in the world of Stine and Fidler's Hollywood. Costume designers Cherol Bowman Daniels and Jami Sullivan have done a marvelous job of distinguishing between the two realms of the play. In the colorful world of Hollywood, Stine wears a tie with red polka-dots. In the black-and-white movie world, Stone wears the same tie in black and white. If the company had been able to create two distinct styles in the acting, perhaps the story lines wouldn't have seemed so muddled. The constant shifting between Stone's complicated movie mystery and Stine's complicated love life led one audience member to loudly moan "I'm so confused!" in the middle of Act Two.

Cy Coleman's music, arranged with help from Yaron Gershovsky, is sung by the cast with fine pitch. J.T. Ricroft and Linda Walsh Ryan excel in their vocal numbers, with Ricroft kicking his energy into gear in "You're Nothing Without Me" and "Funny." Unfortunately David Zippel's lyrics are often lost, because the singers are overpowered by the volume of the band -- a mismatch that causes the opening songs of each act to fizzle.

Ryan captures the noir movie style consistently in her songs and scenes. Trudy Bequette plays the good-girl secretary Oolie with gum-popping, bright-eyed intensity, which contrasts nicely with her earnest portrayal of naughty-girl secretary Donna. Ray Shea and Glenn Guillermo have great looks as comic "tough guys" Big Six and Sonny. Shea wears the world's zootiest zoot suit -- another fun costume choice, and Guillermo (who's also the choreographer) shows off his smooth moves. But their stage combat is sloppy and confusing. Neither stylized nor realistic enough, the smoggy slaps and punches sometimes seem dangerously close to real injury, sometimes miles away from the intended victim. The two best comic scenes in the production take place in "the morgue," where Gerry Love gets huge laughs with no lines as a corpse who cops a feel, and Latin-American Lieutenant Munoz (a slick Matt Urban) launches unexpectedly into a salsa number.

Set designers Russell J. Bettlach and Geoffrey Harris cleverly manipulate the stage of the Robert G. Reim Theatre, utilizing a large crew and multipurpose set pieces to move the characters from bedroom to movie studio to jail to morgue (the play has more than twenty locations). The scene changes were often more dramatically interesting than the scenes -- especially when the zealous crew members accidentally knocked an actor off the stage into the front row. (Kudos to Patrick Ryan for illustrating the adage "the show must go on.") Aside from the scene shifts, however, the production is plagued by a mopey pace and a general lack of urgency on the part of the actors. If City of Angels could ever succeed, it would need considerable editing, crisply delivered dialogue, a clear sense of style and an even clearer delineation between the two worlds of the play. Instead of taking a speedy drive down the brightly lit streets of Hollywood, director Brad Schwartz gets stuck in traffic in this City, overcome by an overwritten script.

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