Few genres of movie went out of style as quickly as noir. Ushered in with the 1940 Alfred Hitchcock movie Rebecca and proving to be one of the most popular genres with audiences, the last recognizable entries in the genre were in 1959. Though it’s doubtful many modern audiences have watched a true film noir from start to finish, the imprint that these films left on the public consciousness can not be erased. City of Angels, a musical from 1989, was written specifically to parody and comment upon the generally vague concept of noir that audiences have. It’s not a wholly successful show, mostly because noir tropes just don’t translate to live performance, but it is unlikely that you will ever get to see a better production of the show than the one currently running at the San Francisco Playhouse, which continues the company’s legacy of extremely high quality live theatre in the best way.
Concerning a young writer by the name of Stine as he attempts to write a screenplay for a film noir in Hollywood in the late 1940’s, the show alternates between Stine’s personal life and a live demonstration of his in progress work as he sits down and writes. The storyline involving the writer is witty, funny, and decidedly interesting, but unfortunately is constantly put on hold to focus on the movie-in-a-musical that just does not come off. Though the plot is classic noir (bearing a great deal of resemblance to The Big Sleep), and the cast is fantastic, the inky black texture of film, as well as the Hollywood look of noir just cannot be faithfully reproduced onstage, resulting in something rather stilted and decidedly uninteresting. Things improve in the second act, when the stories start to blend together, but the show ultimately is never as witty or clever as it needs to be. The score by Cy Coleman (The Will Rogers Follies, Barnum) is fun and lightweight, but the show is far better on record than in the theatre.
What makes this production nevertheless worth seeing is the cast, which is so good as an ensemble that to name every member of the cast who stood out would exhaust a reader, so I will only mention a few highlights. Brandon Dahlquist is perfectly tuned as Stone (the Humphry Bogart-inspired private eye in Stine’s noir film), with outstanding physical presence and a vocal cadence that perfectly matches the style of the era. Jeffrey Brian Adams, a reliable staple in Bay Area productions, is as good as he’s ever been (and he’s been damn good in everything he does), with natural charm to spare and a singing voice made of solid gold. Nanci Zoppi, however, almost walks away with the show in the role of Alaura, the dangerous femme fatale of the noir world. Dead sexy and with bravura comedic chops, taking your eyes off of her is borderline impossible for the entire time that she is on the stage. Her rendition of “The Tennis Song” will doubtless be the best musical performance of the year. I wouldn’t be surprised if she were to become a name actress within the next decade.
Bill English has directed and designed the production with uncommon skill, using the playhouse’s narrow and deep stage extremely creatively, and designing the dual settings with a trick that is so ingenious you’ll wonder why somebody hadn’t thought it up sooner. With this production, the San Francisco Playhouse proves that even less inspired material becomes worth seeing under their watchful eye.