City of Angels | Life Like CompanyLeft – Chelsea Plumley and Amanda Harrison. Cover – the ensemble. Photos – Ben Fon

Despite our insatiable appetite for televised murder mysteries, whodunits are still a rare species on the stage. Quite why this is another mystery in itself, as so many have proved enduringly popular over the years: think The Mousetrap and Perfect Crime with their record-breaking runs.

City of Angels, which opened at the Arts Centre’s Playhouse theatre on Wednesday, is rarer still; it is a musical murder mystery.

With a killer script from the master of the snappy comeback, Larry Gelbart (MASH, Tootsie), the action rattles along at such as pace that the musical interludes often provide a much-needed reprise for your brain to catch up. And put aside any worries that detectives bursting into song will bring too much fluff to this homage to LA film noir – in places they add some gravitas to a script so smart it is occasionally in danger of slipping into slapstick.

The play opens with seductive socialite Alaura Kingsley being shown into the office of two-bit private eye Stone by his Girl Friday, Oolie. He knows the case to find her missing stepdaughter will be trouble – just like the broad herself – but he needs the dough, buddy. It is LA in the 1940s and everything is in black and white.

In a parallel, colourful universe, we see the author of this tale, Stine, struggling to adapt his best-seller to a film script without capitulating too much to the demands of interfering film producer Buddy Fidler: “I knew that if I gave it enough thought you’d come up with it,” quips Fidler.

Stine’s wife is fed up with his womanising and sell-out attitude, so she heads off to New York; Stine promptly starts an affair with Fidler’s secretary. Meanwhile in Stone’s world the detective is blind to Oolie’s devotion and ignores the advances of other femme fatales.

“He has a streak of morality that eludes me,” says Stine with rare insight.

The two tales jog along beside each other as Stine battles Fidler, the typewriter and his conscience, and Stone’s situation spirals equally out of control. Framed for murder, Stone battles thugs trying beat him into retreat, a lost lover turned tragic and a former police colleague who would love to see him go to the gas chamber.

Finally Stone has had enough and confronts his creator, Stine.

Stine writes another punch-up scene in revenge.

As the parallel worlds collide and fantasy blends into reality, will Stine find his own redemption? Maybe Stone himself will come to the rescue…

To add to the intrigue, other characters also echo each other: Stine’s wife Gabby and Stone’s love Bobbi are both played by Chelsea Plumley, while Amanda Harrison jumps between Oolie and Fidler’s secretary, and so on. Only Stone (Kane Alexander) and Stine (Anton Berezin) play single characters.

Even the heavenly voiced Angel City Quartet singers – Jennifer Peers, Melissa Langton, Andrew Kroenert and Connor Crawford – double or quadruple up as a handful of extra characters.

All the singers prove to be uber talented, with only a couple of weak spots, and some key moments are pure gold (medals to Amanda Harrison for best costume change on stage, and Chelsea Plumley for best tragic broad).

Hidden in the orchestra pit but forming the backbone of the piece are the band, led by musical director Kellie Dickerson, who do much to transport the audience back to the golden age of jazz.

Kudos also to the lighting team for some clever techniques in separating the “reel” and “real” scenes.

Only a minor irritation was caused by the constant stage-set fiddling, which might be necessary but gets a bit tiresome.

It’s the sort of play you might happily see twice, from sheer enjoyment and to iron out a few queries, but sadly you probably won’t get a chance; while the original staging of the play back in 1993 ran for about six months each in Broadway and the West End, it only gets four days in Melbourne.

But if you love the genre, check out the return to stage of North by Northwest for two weeks from January 29, 2016.


Life Like Company presents
City of Angels
Book by Larry Gelbart | Music by Cy Coleman | Lyrics by David Zippel
 
Venue: Arts Centre, Playhoue
Dates: November 5-8, 2015, 8pm (6pm Sunday)
Tickets: $35 – $135
Bookings: 1300 182 183 | www.artscentremelbourne.com.au