It was a day like any other day for a gumshoe critic. That's how it is, off season, off Broadway, off Baltimore. I poured a cup of java and contemplated my next case. It looked grim. Of all the ideas in all the theaters in all the world, this one had to walk into Washington's National Theatre. A murder-mystery musical -- the same deadly combination that did in the late lamented "Nick and Nora."
But enough ersatz Raymond Chandler. It's a losing battle trying to be cleverer, funnier or slicker than the Tony Award-winning "City of Angels." By parodying private-eye fiction, scriptwriter Larry Gelbart has saved this mystery musical from becoming just another corpse.
However, Gelbart -- a playwright with a slew of Hollywood credits, including "Tootsie" and the TV series "M*A*S*H" -- isn't content merely to spoof murder mysteries. His specific target is 1940s-style detective movies, and (pun intended) he has scored a direct hit.
It may seem peculiar that a review of a musical features the book HTC writer more prominently than the songwriters.
For the record, they are composer Cy Coleman and lyricist David Zippel, and they've done just fine by this show.
The score not only achieves the right period flavor, but also includes a couple of memorable tunes, most notably the protagonists' theme song, "You're Nothing Without Me," and the torchy, "You Can Always Count on Me."
But Gelbart's contribution -- and director Michael Blakemore's witty realization of it -- is what really makes this musical sing.
The premise is that a novelist named Stine is in Hollywood writing the screenplay for his latest best seller, "City of Angels," a detective novel about a sleuth named Stone.
The show's ingenuous gimmick is that it is presented split-screen-style as a movie within a musical. As Stine pounds away at his typewriter, the scenes he is writing are simultaneously enacted by Stone and the other movie characters. When Stine rewrites, the film characters scurry in reverse, swallowing mouthfuls of backward babble.
In addition, thanks to Florence Klotz' costumes, Robin Wagner's sets and Paul Gallo's lighting, the movie characters appear in black and white, while Stine and the rest of his real-life world appear in full color.
Extending the gimmick even further, almost everyone -- except for the actors playing Stine and Stone -- is double-cast, providing instantaneous demonstration of the way novelists fictionalize the people around them.
In just about every respect, this touring production is up to the level of its Broadway counterpart, beginning with the portrayal of cynical Stone by Barry Williams. Best known as Greg in "The Brady Bunch," Williams proves he has reached musical comedy maturity in this hard-boiled role. Betsy Joslyn is a full-throated hoot in the twin roles of real and cinematic secretaries, the first sweet on Stine and the second sweet on Stone. However, Jordan Leeds is colorless as Stine (despite his Technicolor milieu), and Sandy Edgerton is vocally disappointing as the love of Stine/Stone's life.
But it almost seems petty to find fault with a show in which nearly everything sparkles as brightly as the quips. "Only the floor kept her legs from going on forever," Stone says of a shapely client. "Envy so thick you can cut it with a knife lodged in every other back," is Stine's description of the atmosphere at a Hollywood party.
"City of Angels" has solved the mystery of the disappearing murder-mystery musical: It leaves you humming the script.
'City of Angels'
When: Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m.; matinees Saturdays at 2 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Through July 5.
Where: National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington.
Call: (202) 628-6161.