×

London Theater Review: ‘City of Angels’ at the Donmar Warehouse

With:
Samantha Barks, Nick Cavaliere, Rosalie Craig, Cameron Cuffe, Marc Elliott, Adam Fogerty, Hadley Fraser, Katherine Kelly, Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Tam Mutu, Mark Penfold, Peter Polycarpou, Jennifer Saayeng, Jo Servi, Tim Walton.

As British theater frets over representation of diversity — rightly so — Larry Gelbart and Cy Coleman’s jazz musical makes for canny programming from Donmar Warehouse boss Josie Rourke. A spoof with a serious side, it doubles as a Christmas treat and a cultural intervention, lampooning and lambasting Hollywood’s reductive cliches in equal measure. Ultimately, it’s art about art, with ciphers for characters and wisecracks for dialogue, but it’s hard to imagine it better staged than this. Rourke’s production — her first shot at a musical — looks like a dream and plays like a hoot, letting a knockout cast loose on knockabout comedy.

Gelbart’s book is a layered affair: Hadley Fraser plays Stine, a self-obsessed, insecure novelist struggling to compress his Chandleresque detective thriller into a shooting script. As he clackers away on his typewriter, his characters come to life — all reminiscent of, but reduced from, his real-life acquaintances.

Stone (Tam Mutu), Stine’s private eye protagonist (and fictional, far-better self), is tasked with tracking down the alluring Alaura Kingsley’s missing stepdaughter, Mallory (Samantha Barks). Only someone doesn’t want him nosing around, as the heavies that knock through his door, then his face, make quite clear. Might Alaura’s ancient billionaire husband, still just about breathing in his iron lung, have anything to do with it?

Popular on Variety

Already heaving with tropes — vamps, ingenues and two-bit broads fawn over Mutu’s rugged Hitchcockian hero — the novel needs further simplification to meet Hollywood standards imposed by producer Buddy Fiddler (Peter Polycarpou, husky and hilarious). Out go the racial politics, down plunge the necklines and Stine’s colourful, complex reality gets flattened into black and white, until even his characters rebel. No matter: Dissent can be crushed with the backspace key that — brilliantly — sends actors into rewind.

Gelbart makes his point early and his ciphers can’t sustain a second act that gets itself tangled. Small matter, given the style on show. Practically every other line cracks a laugh, and Coleman’s authentic jazz score is rich and infectious, combining variety with real integrity. Robert Jones’s crisp greyscale design, artfully lit by Howard Harrison, and Duncan Mclean’s colourful projections match them for class.

Nitpickers might argue that the show has its feminist cake and practically eats it off a scantily-clad Barks. Or that by giving its black chorus background roles, it replicates the problems it aims to point out. We still end with two white male protagonists singing each another’s praises in a buddy-buddy duet, “Without You I’m Nothing.”

But, hell, everyone’s having so much fun sending their stock through the roof that you can’t help but get swept along. Katherine Kelly vamp-oons to perfection as Alaura, bristling and rolling her eyes throughout, while Barks channels Marilyn Monroe, teasing out Mallory’s every word so that David Zippel’s lyrics emerge lipstick-stained. Rosalie Craig and Rebecca Trehearn, as Stine’s wife and mistress, show quite how much feeling you can cram into a song.

Spinning between these women — a different man with each — Fraser achieves real roundedness. He’s frazzled and self-pitying one moment, preening and cocksure the next. If only every character, regardless or gender or race, got such opportunities.

London Theater Review: 'City of Angels' at the Donmar Warehouse

Donmar Warehouse, London; 250 seats; £39.50 ($62) top. Opened, reviewed Dec 17, 2014. Running time: 3 HOURS.

Production: A Donmar Warehouse production of a musical in two acts by Cy Coleman, with a book by Larry Gelbart and lyrics by David Zippel.

Creative: Directed by Josie Rourke. Sets and costumes, Robert Jones; lighting, Howard Harrison; video and projection design, Duncan Mclean; sound, Nick Lidster and Terry Jardine for Autograph; choreography, Stephen Mear;; musical direction Gareth Valentine; orchestrations, Billy Byers and Larry Blank.

Cast: Samantha Barks, Nick Cavaliere, Rosalie Craig, Cameron Cuffe, Marc Elliott, Adam Fogerty, Hadley Fraser, Katherine Kelly, Kadiff Kirwan, Sandra Marvin, Tam Mutu, Mark Penfold, Peter Polycarpou, Jennifer Saayeng, Jo Servi, Tim Walton.

More Legit

  • Zoe Caldwell Dead

    Zoe Caldwell, Four-Time Tony Winner, Dies at 86

    Zoe Caldwell, an Australian actress with a talent for illuminating the human side of imposing icons such as Cleopatra and Maria Callas in a career that netted her four Tony Awards, died on Sunday due to complications from Parkinson’s disease, according to her son Charlie Whitehead. She was 86. Caldwell occasionally appeared in television and [...]

  • Cambodian Rock Band interview

    Listen: How 'Cambodian Rock Band' Became One of the Most Produced Plays in the U.S.

    One of the hottest trends in American theater this season is Cambodian surf rock from the 1970s — and that’s thanks to “Cambodian Rock Band.” Listen to this week’s Stagecraft podcast below: Playwright Lauren Yee’s genre-bending stage show, part family drama and part rock concert, has become one of the most-produced plays in the U.S. this season. [...]

  • Revenge Song

    Vampire Cowboys' 'Revenge Song': L.A. Theater Review

    There’s highbrow, there’s lowbrow, and then there’s however you might classify Vampire Cowboys, the anarchic New York City theater company whose diverse productions . It’s radical, “good taste”-flouting counter-programming for the vast swaths of the population left unserved by high-dollar, stiff-collar theater options. Vampire Cowboys’ raucous new show, “Revenge Song,” is unlike anything else that’s [...]

  • THE VISIT review

    'The Visit': Theater Review

    Director Jeremy Herrin’s extraordinary take on Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s 1956 play “The Visit” is less of a production and more of a show. A wordy one, to be sure, which is no surprise since it’s an adaptation by Tony Kushner that, including two intermissions, comes in at three-and-a-half hours. It’s never going to be described as [...]

  • Freestyle Love Supreme review

    'We Are Freestyle Love Supreme': Film Review

    For any Lin-Manuel Miranda fans whose hearts sank almost as quickly as they rose upon hearing that, yes, there’s a “Hamilton” movie, and no, it won’t be out for another 20 months, succor may be on the way in the form of a probably faster-arriving movie that features Miranda in almost as big a role, [...]

  • Unmasked review

    Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Unmasked': Theater Review

    It takes guts to admit you were wrong — especially when you have been so right, so often. Take composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose successes with  “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Sunset Boulevard,” and “School of Rock” have made him a musical-theater uber-Lord. Early on during [...]

  • Aaron Loeb

    James Ward Byrkit to Direct Aaron Loeb's Off-Broadway Adaptation 'Ideation' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Aaron Loeb’s darkly comic one-act play “Ideation” will be turned into a movie, Variety has learned. The Off-Broadway production centers on a group of corporate consultants who work together on a mysterious and ethically ambiguous project for the government. It premiered in 2016, and went on to become a New York Times Critic’s Pick during [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content