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Theater Review

Sophomore Humor Swallows City Noir in 'Gunmetal Blues'

May 29, 1999|DARYL H. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a dull, dead-end night in the cocktail lounge at one of those faceless hotels near the airport. The sole customer, a washed-up private eye, is slumped onto his table while over at the baby grand the piano player serenades himself.

Since this is a film noir-style murder-disappearance mystery, let's cue the saxophone and bring on the femme fatale.

And here comes our first clue--the one that indicates that "Gunmetal Blues," a musical-comedy homage to detective films, isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is: The characters are named Buddy Toupee (the lounge singer), Sam Galahad (the private eye) and Laura Vesper (the femme fatale).

Second clue: The private-eye's wisecracking narration includes such groaners as a description of a monstrous skyscraper "that marred the face of the city like a cut-rate nose job" and a femme fatale who "had hair the color of moonlight on topaz and a mouth that could send Shakespeare thumbing through a thesaurus."

"Gunmetal Blues" drew some favorable reviews off-Broadway in 1992, and its Southern California premiere by Laguna Playhouse will, no doubt, tickle some members of the audience. Yet sophistication battles with the sophomoric and, too often, the latter wins out. Jules Aaron and his performers come up with playfulness and style to spare, but they're only as good as the material by Scott Wentworth (book) and Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler (music and lyrics) allows them to be.

As the lounge entertainer who may or may not be part of the unfolding mystery, Jeffrey Rockwell--whose mug is etched with the rough-cut handsomeness of one of those '40s film gangsters--observes from the piano, backed by a jazz trio.

Laguna Playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle plays the private eye in the Humphrey Bogart / Robert Mitchum tradition--strong yet punch-drunk, good-humored yet jaded. He's a pretty boy who, touchingly, is going to seed, a tough guy who, admirably, can take a sock to the jaw and casually spit out the dislodged tooth.

Crowned with the obligatory shoulder-length blond hair, Tracy Lore's femme fatale is icily, haughtily beautiful. When she crosses her legs, it's a study in sensuality, in one smooth gesture.

The three handle multiple roles with aplomb, delivering the moody jazz with flair. Set designer Don Gruber and costumer Dwight Richard Odle render the scene in fitting '40s styles and colors (though the action is, ostensibly, set in the present), and lighting designer Paulie Jenkins delivers just the right murkiness and shadow.

Fine work, sadly wasted on a lot of corn.

* "Gunmetal Blues," Laguna Playhouse's Moulton Theatre, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends June 20. $31-$38. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

Jeffrey Rockwell: The Piano Player

Andrew Barnicle: The Private Eye

Tracy Lore: The Blond

A Laguna Playhouse production. Book by Scott Wentworth; music and lyrics by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler. Directed by Jules Aaron. Additional staging Roger Castellano. Set Don Gruber. Costumes Dwight Richard Odle. Lights Paulie Jenkins. Stage manager Nancy Staiger.

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