City of Angels, by the incomparable Cy Coleman (music), David Zippel (lyrics) and Larry Gelbart (book), has an incredible jazz-infused score with a fantastic look into “real” world vs. fiction. The contrast between the two worlds is extremely complex and completely interwoven together. On top of the intricate book, Cy Coleman’s score is one of the most difficult pieces of music to sing and play that’s been written in the last 20 years of musical theatre. This is no Rodgers & Hammerstein. That’s not to mention the difficult set design, lighting and costume plot that needs to be executed brilliantly to help the audience to understand the cleverly written plot. With all that said, Hillbarn Theatre undertakes this task with gusto and does their best creating two different worlds on their small, intimate stage.
The vocals and 14-piece orchestra were the real “stars” of this production of City of Angels. First off, the “Angel City 4” (Zach Yaholkovsky, Juliet Green, Michelle Hawkins, and Dave Duran) were vocally spot-on. The intricate harmonies in the opening number, “Prologue”, blew my socks off! It was absolutely fantastic. Throughout the production, their tight vocals continued to soar, especially in “Everybody’s Gotta Be Somewhere” and “Stay With Me” — two of my favorite songs in this show. Other standout vocalists were the two male leads, David Martin (Stine) and David Sattler (Stone). Both had a beautiful rich baritone voice and they handled the material with ease. The Act 1 finale, “You’re Nothing Without Me”, was fantastic and I couldn’t wait for the reprise in the Act 2!
The orchestra, conducted by Greg “Suds” Sudmeier, sounded outstanding, even though they were behind the set in the back room. (A huge congratulations to the sound designers, David McCollum & Stephen Thorpe for making them sound fantastic!) I was extremely impressed with the balance between instruments and the vocalists — no small feat. This is an extremely hard score to play and I was very impressed with the level it was played at. I just wish we would have been able to see the orchestra play.
The two female leads, Patti Appel (Carla Hayward/Alaura Kingsley) and Corrie Lenn Borris (Donna/Oolie) were also fantastic. Also, Victoria Morgan’s (Gabby/Bobbi) rendition of “With Every Breath I Take” was spell-binding. Seriously, great vocals. Morgan and Borris’ duet, “What You Don’t Know About Women” was also another great song!
Unfortunately, the production suffered because of the vagueness between real life and fiction. The story became unclear because the production values weren’t supporting the action on the stage. The lighting design needed to help clarify the two different worlds, but instead it muddled them together. While there were some unique ideas in the set design, overall it wasn’t flushed out in a way that truly made sense. It seemed frantic and didn’t fit the space well. The two worlds need to be distinctly separated until the very end when everything collides and Stone and Stine both have their epiphanies. Since it was confusing at the start, the ending didn’t pack the punch that it deserved.
I truly admire and applaud Hillbarn Theatre for producing a musical that is rarely done, especially since it’s one of my favorite shows. I only wish I would have been able to follow the story a little bit better. But if you are lover of vocal jazz, then grab your tickets, because you will not be disappointed with the music in this production. It’s some of the best vocals I’ve heard in a musical in the Bay Area in a long time!