Heavens, No

City of Angels gets la-la-lost; DFW drama critics dole out '06 honors

A great many angels may comfortably waltz on the head of a pin, but putting 20 actors and four musicians on the pint-sized stage at the Flower Mound Performing Arts Theatre for the musical City of Angels spells claustrophobia. How small is this place? Just 60 seats are jammed into four rows on two sides of a boxy acting space so intime the audience can tell at a whiff which actors bother to gargle. You don't enter this theater--you put it on like a tight sweater.

City of Angels, winner of six Tonys in 1990, including Best Musical, is a bigger show than the Flower Mound theater can comfortably handle. It tells a sprawling noir tale of an author named Stine struggling to adapt his hardboiled detective novel into screenplay form. It's really two side-by-side musicals, both goofing on Hollywood. Half the stage belongs to Stine, played at FMPAT by Gary Floyd, who just ended a run as the lead in Theatre Three's production of The Full Monty. Stine sings and frets and types pages of dialogue for his stock characters--his alter-ego detective named Stone (Theo Wischhusen), femme fatale Alaura (Lindsey Holloway), loyal secretary Oolie (Patty Breckenridge) and various extras--who crowd the rest of the stage to act out scenes that Stine is writing. When he backspaces over lines he doesn't like, characters walk and talk in reverse. Cute.

With a caustically funny book by Larry Gelbart (writer of TV's M*A*S*H and Broadway's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) and jazz-influenced music and lyrics by Forum's Cy Coleman and David Zippel, City of Angels, running about three hours, boasts 25 musical numbers, scads of scene changes and oodles of interaction between Stine and his fictional characters, who begin to intrude on his real-life relationship with his wife (Jennifer Green) and mistress (Breckenridge again). He also verbally jousts with a Goldwyn-esque movie mogul named Buddy (Tony Martin) who grouses that "You can tell a writer every time: words, words, words!"

On Broadway the dividing line between Stine's worlds was clearly and cleverly defined. Stine appeared in living color; the movie folk came in shades of gray, like a black-and-white thriller come to life (something Pegasus Theatre's been doing for decades, but oh, well). At the itty-bitty Flower Mound venue, director Mark Mullino doesn't try any of that, instead churning it all into visual hash. Characters from Stine's real world and his imaginary one trip over each other, as do the poor actors who have to dodge not just one another on the stamp-sized stage but lots of bulky and totally unnecessary set pieces that include a man in an iron lung (!), a double bed, chairs, several desks and a tricky door that fell off its hinges on opening night and hit the floor with a deafening THWAP!

Hats go flying, suspenders repeatedly snap off pants. It's enough to keep the audience on the edge of their teensy seats just wondering what will go wrong next. We didn't have to wait long at that first performance. In a song-and-dance number, Floyd got shoved out of his chair and hit the ground so hard he looked dazed. Or maybe that look said, "What am I doing in this mess? Wasn't I just in a hit show?"

The cast of good singers and actors, including Chris Robinson and Doug Miller (both hilarious in Pageant at Uptown), fights to be heard un-miked over the four-piece band wailing away onstage with them. (If you're seated on the front row, you can reach out and duet on the keyboard.) It's an exhausting experience on all sides of the single aisle, which is often occupied by an actor or two. Hell, they're everywhere, some clinging to the walls like bats.

Like a movie ruined by being "modified to the fit the format" of a TV screen, FMPAT tries to shrink-wrap a really big show onto a stage that would choke The Odd Couple.

This year's Dallas-Fort Worth Theater Critics Forum luncheon involved more fried chicken but fewer loud arguments than previous get-togethers. There seemed to be greater unanimity than usual over which among the area's hundreds of stage productions and performances reviewed between September 2005 and August 2006 deserved special recognition. That doesn't mean decisions were easy, thus the long list of honorees, some earning special huzzahs for their excellent work on more than one stage last season.

Joining the Dallas Observerin the voting: Glenn Arbery, D Magazine; Nancy Churnin, Manuel Mendoza, Lawson Taitte, The Dallas Morning News; Mark Lowry and Perry Stewart, Fort Worth Star-Telegram; Martha Heimberg, Turtle Creek News; Arnold Wayne Jones, Dallas Voice.

The winners:

Outstanding Direction: Sharon Benge, Blues for an Alabama Sky (Jubilee Theatre); James Paul Lemons, Urinetown: The Musical and The Woman in Black (both WaterTower Theatre); David Miller, Below the Belt (Amphibian Stage Productions); René Moreno, No Exit (Classical Acting Company) and Visiting Mr. Green (Contemporary Theatre of Dallas); Robert Neblett, The Dreamer Examines His Pillow (Theater Fusion); Susan Sargeant, Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (WingSpan Theatre Company) and The Women (CTD); Jonathan Taylor, Bug (Kitchen Dog Theater)

Outstanding Performances by Actors: Ian Leson, playing leading roles in Bug (KDT) and Visiting Mr. Green (CTD); Joe Nemmers as John Proctor in The Crucible (WaterTower) and as the older brother in the two-actor drama On an Average Day (KDT); Paul Taylor for his season of starring roles in The Normal Heart (Uptown Players), Side by Side by Sondheim (Circle Theatre) and Urinetown: The Musical (WaterTower); Ashley Wood for leading roles in The Devil's Disciple (Theatre Three), Lone Star (CTD), Raw Vision (KDT) and Sailing to Byzantium (Echo Theatre); Clay Yocum in the two-hander Danny and the Deep Blue Sea (WingSpan) and as Shane Mungitt, the pitcher with a killer fastball in Take Me Out (WaterTower)

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