Even though City of Angels was a Broadway smash in 1990, taking home Tony’s for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Original Score, here it is 26 years later and it’s still yet to be performed by a D.C.-area professional theater company. That is, until now.
NextStop Theatre, under the direction of Evan Hoffmann, is currently staging the innovative jazz musical, written by noted M*A*S*H writer Larry Gelbart, with a score by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel.
The film noir inspired musical takes place in Hollywood in the late ’40s, and what’s interesting about the production is that it’s really two stories in one— occurring simultaneously: a Hollywood comedy and a detective drama, with most in the cast doubling to play a character in both the “real” and “fictional” parts of the production.
The story follows Stine (Bobby Libby), a writer who is translating his detective novel into a screenplay for Hollywood. The action in the “movie” centers on Stone (Ryan Burke), a troubled gumshoe, and the mystery of a missing young woman.
Katie Keyser plays the duo role of Gabby, the wife of Stine in the real world, and Bobbi, the detective’s former girlfriend, a nightclub singer in the film noir story.
“I get to play a whole gamut of roles and it’s very convoluted, but so much fun,” she says. “It’s a really complicated show, and you get to see the whole artistic process of how Stine’s screenplay evolves in the play.”
Keyser is no stranger to NextStop having appeared last year as Lily in The Secret Garden, and in a cabaret this past summer.
“They had a really early audition process for this. I wasn’t even aware it was happening, but Evan called me up and told me it was happening to find out if I was interested,” she says. “I was familiar with the show, having seen a college production a couple of years back, and I remembered loving the music. When I realized the songs that my character would be singing, I was all on board, because I think they are some of the best in the show.” Among them is the smoldering ballad “With Every Breath I Take.”
Speaking of the music, Keyser feels that’s what makes City of Angels one of the best musicals to come along in the last quarter century.
“The music is so intelligent and really fun to listen to. The lyrics are extremely witty and it’s a very wordy musical; it’s filled with delicious metaphors, which is awesome to sing,” she says. “I sat down with the musical director recently to talk about one of the songs, and we just talked for 45 minutes about it because there is so much going on, so much underlining tension.”
Besides being a show within in show, Keyser notes it’s not a typical musical in other respects as well.
“It takes it to another level. You have this 1940s Hollywood screenwriter and then you delve into a seedy underworld of crime and romance, and it’s interesting,” she says. “It’s not like any other show I can think of.”
City of Angels will feature 14 actors and a 7-piece jazz combo, and a unit set that evokes the feel of old-world Hollywood, and while the Herndon black box theatre might not seem the ideal location for such a large production, NextStop does have a history of turning big Broadway shows into a more intimate feel, such as Into the Woods, Secret Garden, and Kiss Me Kate.
“It’s a big show but the cast is still smaller than is typically done, and we have a lot of actors doubling smaller roles, which is really fun for the cast since they are not playing just one character all the time,” Keyser says. “Evan kept it smaller which I think works really well in this space.”
A fun part of the production is that the show displays the “real” world in color and the film noir scenes in black and white.
City of Angels
at NextStop Theatre
closes June 5, 2016
Details and tickets
“The artistic elements are shown in our costumes and wigs and lighting. A lot of the women have dark wigs or really blonde wigs to help with the contrast, and we have dark lipsticks and highlights,” she says. “In real time, Gabby has a strawberry blonde wig and we’ve been changing our make-up, and in songs when the two worlds overlap, it’s a really cool juxtaposition between black and white and color. They’ve done a really good job of it.”
One of Keyser’s favorite things about working at NextStop is the amount of time Hoffman allows for the show to come about.
“A lot of times when you work in a theater, it’s very much go, go, go, they try to get things done as soon as possible so they can get it ready for the season and running, and quite often you don’t get time to sit and digest what’s going on and doing the table work that’s involved with a show,” she says. “Evan is someone who really likes to sit and talk about what we’re doing and where it comes from and once we have, he likes to play with it and experiment with it. That’s welcomed by us actors.”