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`City of Angels' goes to hell in Durham

The "City of Angels" lost some of its luster en route to Page Auditorium.

Broadway at Duke presented the 1990 Tony Award winning musical Tuesday and Wednesday as a part of its 1993-94 series. Larry Gelbart's story takes place in the 1940s, in which a novelist Stine takes the huge leap in turning his book into a screenplay. His stable life is thrown amuck in his adjustment to Hollywood. Not only does Stine need to sort out his life, his humble existence is constantly overshadowed by his more debonair fictional counterpart, Stone.

In the musical's original state, Gelbart ingeniously weaves a patchwork of reality intermingling with the fictional. Each principal actor plays a dual role; one in the "real" world and the other in the film. Gelbart intercuts the "real" plot and the film plot. Thus, after a while, the plots become hard to distinguish, a skillful way of highlighting Stine's dilemma.

An even more striking feature is the way the music and lyrics tell the story in that sleazy, cliche-filled film noir genre. Cy Coleman's tunes are catchy and jazzy which heightens the feel of the '40s. David Zippel slips in plenty of one-liners that are more side-splitting in song and rhyme. A mostly naked Mallory Kingley (played by Jill Monaco) chimes in "Lost and Found," "If you're not celibate, we could raise hell a bit." Also, Oolie (played by Kathy Halenda), who always strikes out with men explains in "You Can Always Count on Me," "I woke up only slightly shocked that I defrocked a priest."

With all these elements, it was not surprising that some expected the best in Page Auditorium. However, there were plenty of glitches that lessened the magic of "City of Angels."

For starters, many of the sets were mounted on rolling platforms which threw the actors off balance. It was almost funnier to watch the actors try to skateboard than to watch their parody of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. Stone's room had trouble moving up and down stage through the "Master Pictures" arch; the actors had trouble opening and closing doors, and more than once were stagehands shadows visible behind these platforms.

Another noticeable flaw was the cast. Mark Blackburn, who played Stone, was a suave, lone wolf detective, with a weak spot for women, reminiscent of those in film noir. Halenda was outstanding in the dual role of secretaries Oolie and Donna. She brought out the lovable, as well as the used and abused facets of her dual roles. Her rendition of "You Can Always Count On Me" was an autobiography of her hopeless life: "As a matter of fact if you need an ill-fated love affair, you can always count on me."

Other actors like Al D. Rodriguez (Lieutenant Munoz) and Monaco put gave a special twist to their stereotyped characters.

Unfortunately, in the part of Stine that calls for angst, introverted self-reflection and hidden genius, the lead Randy Lake was too nerdy, goofy and boyish. It was hard to identify with a character who did not seem to take his problems seriously. However, his voice was adequate in "You're Nothing Without Me," a number which Stone and Stine try to match each other.

Just as weak was Vee Ringo (Gabby/Bobbi) who played the wife of Stine and the love of Stone. Her musical numbers came off as deadpan, which made one wonder what Stone and Stine saw in Gabby and Bobbi.

Despite the show's amateurish quality, the sets were one of the more elaborate collections that have graced the Page stage. Most of all, the story, music and lyrics were strong enough to hold their own, and it was nice to watch the audience leave whistling the tunes.

For those who have not seen it and even those who saw it at Page, go see "City of Angels" somewhere else.

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