Patrick Varner and Samantha Richert in City of Angels, directed by Spiro Veloudos, at Boston's Lyric Stage Company.
Patrick Varner and Samantha Richert in City of Angels, directed by Spiro Veloudos, at Boston's Lyric Stage Company.
(© Mark S. Howard)

The Lyric Stage Company's elaborate revival of the 1989 Tony-winning musical City of Angels, with a book by Larry Gelbart, score by Cy Coleman, and lyrics by David Zippel, features a large cast studded by several of Boston's leading actors and an assertive six-piece band. Despite this, the show never really finds its footing until the nebbishy writer, Stine (Phil Tayler), and his screen alter ego, Stone (Ed Hoopman), have a shout-out confrontation in "You're Nothing Without Me," arguably the most memorable song in the show.

Angels follows Stine's problems in translating his novel into a film noir shooting script commissioned by the demanding and self-involved movie mogul Buddy Fidler (J.T. Turner), who insists on changing most of the author's ideas and dialogue. The gimmick is interspersing a parallel line of action: Stine's life at the studio in Tinseltown alternating with streaming the film he is writing, as if the audience is privy to the pictures in his mind. Other than Tayler and Hoopman, the cast plays several characters in each of the stories. Fidler, a larger-than-life personality who is modeled into a pastiche of legends like Samuel Goldwyn, later morphs into Irwin S. Irving, a girl-chasing Hollywood producer in Stine's film.

Thanks to the double-casting, sorting out which character an actor is playing in the successive scenes takes a troubling amount of concentration, especially since the boundaries between the fictional personae are often blurred as well.

It's easier to accept the confusion and take pleasure in the high points, especially when Leigh Barrett punches out the number "You Can Always Count on Me," in her combined roles as Oolie, Stone's faithful girl Friday, and Donna, Fidler's assistant; or the delight in discovering that Tayler makes a strong impression in the role of a musical's leading man. When he finally breaks out of his hangdog acquiescence to Fidler's demands in "Funny," he transforms into a marvel of anger and angst.

Jennifer Ellis, one of the most effective musical theater performers around town, has yet to find her comfort zone between Gabby, Stine's wife, and Bobbi, Stone's ex-wife. And her big number, "With Every Breath I Take," is nearly drowned out by the overwhelming sound of the orchestra (music direction by Catherine Stornetta). Samantha Richert as both Buddy's wife and the femme fatale in the screenplay undercuts Gelbart's satire by chewing the scenery rather than playing it cool. Tony Castellanos as the vengeful but funny cop has similar scenery-chewing issues, while Davron S. Monroe could use more moxie as the crooner Jimmy Powers.

Director Spiro Veloudos has had great success in fitting Stephen Sondheim musicals to the small performing space at Lyric Stage, but the complex dual plot lines of City of Angels do not translate quite as well until the Act 1 finale. Otherwise, Matt Whiton's excellent scenic design, backed by a panorama in silhouette of the Hollywood landmarks, multiple set changes deftly performed by various members of the cast, and Elisabetta Polito's costumes help establish the sense of the period. The quartet of singers that back up several numbers serve as a harmonious reminder of the big band era.

One might wish that the jokes about Fidler's ethnicity, a throwback to the bad old days of vaudeville, and the smarmy sexual allusions had not brought the production so perilously close to the level of bad taste, despite the intentional clichés of the spoof. Although City of Angels gives some of the best of Boston's musical performers a welcome outing, the show proves to be a challenge, one not quite solved by the Lyric Stage Company.