In the continuing saga of who can inflict more pain, the reviewer or the reviewee, Stage 62 wins hands-down with its ambitious but flawed production of City of Angels. What could have been a glorious success for director Mark Calla and his large cast, and music director/conductor Steve Baldanzi and his commendable orchestra, was upended by technical problems with the sound. Ever spend nearly three hours straining to understand what people are saying or singing? Much of the audience gave up at intermission. The rest of us left with headaches.
The plot of the multi-award-winning 1989 musical is tricky enough to follow even if you can hear all words. Set in 1940s Hollywood, the show focuses on a novelist-turned-screenwriter and the progress of his book/script. Angels' conceit is that nearly everybody in the writer's "real life" is double-cast in his mystery fiction -- except for the writer himself, Stine (a diminutive but pugnacious Chris Martin), and his hard-boiled detective, Stone (superbly portrayed by Erich Lascek). Created by show-biz veterans Cy Coleman (music), David Zippel (lyrics) and Larry Gelbart (book), Angels takes a sardonic look at the moviemaking process and how it eats away at artistic integrity. The compromising, misbehaving Stine envies but cannot emulate the tough morality of his hero, Stone.
That's deeper than you probably want to get. After all, Angels is a musical comedy, not a morality play. The "movie" cast cleverly mirrors the realities in Stine's life. His wife becomes Stone's inamorata (Sara Barbisch, especially fetching in her final scene with the detective). The writer openly bases Stone's loyal "girl Friday" on the helpful studio secretary Donna (Gretchen Eischen, whose dual-persona rendition of "You Can Always Count on Me" nearly stops the show). Unfortunately, the two blondes look so similar that at first I thought that one person was inexplicably playing four roles.
Also notable are Maura Underwood as an alluring seductress; J.P. Welsh as the movie director with a big ego and small mind; Jesse Warnick as Stone's former partner and more recent nemesis; and the lingerie selections of costume designer Kim Katruska, even if she didn't use the seamed stockings of the period. The 11-piece orchestra sounded great, but completely overwhelmed the actors.
Let's hope that the technical problems that should have been solved well before the second full performance don't afflict the remainder of Angels' run with gibberish.
City of Angels continues through Sun., Aug. 1. Stage 62 at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library Music Hall, 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie. 412-429-6262 or www.stage62.com