There are moments in "Gunmetal Blues" when it seems like the coolest thing on ice -- flashes of inspiration that punch through tired musical theater conventions to a new level of immediacy, rich allusion and pure performative joy.
So, this is what a jazz-cabaret-detective musical can be, we think as gumshoe Sam Galahad (Kevin Symons) wakes up hung over and sings, to a gutbucket blues backbeat, "Woke up this morning / With a freight train in my head." A beatnik sax player (Jeff Driskill) emerges from the wings to accompany this rude awakening with a few smokin' hot hangover-rattling licks.
And, we realize, this is what a deconstructed sexpot show-stopper can look like, as a blowsy chanteuse named Carol Indigo (Susan Wood) sloshes her way through a jiggly pair of 11 o'clock numbers. At one point, after clambering drunkenly up onto a baby grand, she passes out briefly in a position usually only assumed by sprinters at the starting block.
The just-right wit and snap of flourishes like these can give us a giddy rush, as if the old razzle-dazzle that musicals have forgotten how to pull off was back with bells on -- and with just enough of a wink to make us feel like we're in on the best secret, or the slickest scam, in town.
The rest of "Gunmetal Blues" goes down as sweet and easy as an apple martini, although we might find a few superfluous garnishes in the mix and wish we'd stuck to Scotch, neat. Indeed, the show is ultimately all flourish, a narrative trompe l'oeil that has smart fun with well-trod film noir cliches but also, somewhat jarringly, wants straight-up sympathy for its pulp-fiction sharpies, floozies and femme fatales. Would Sam Spade ever be caught dead singing, even in his loneliest place, "Bring back my childhood days"?
And if you're going to play with form -- putting the glad-handing piano player (Jeffrey Rockwell) onstage and having one actress (Wood) in all the female roles -- why not go all the Brechtian way? Scott Wentworth's book is instead disappointingly prosaic, tying up the who-cares-whodunit plot while leaving the show's real mystery -- was all this real or imagined? -- untouched.
Director Andrew Barnicle (who starred in Laguna Playhouse's local premiere in 1999) stages it seamlessly across John Berger's dark, evocatively banged-up set, with Paulie Jenkins' lighting design nailing the noir contrasts and Dwight Richard Odle's costumes lending iconic shape and sheen to the show's archetypes.
Symons is an ideal Galahad, wizened and sardonic but still endearingly boyish under the stubble. Wood has a tougher role -- five roles, in fact, some of them dubious (a cutesy bag lady named Princess? Hello?) and written in a warbly tessitura that hovers close to operetta (accomplished score by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler).
But she kills as Carol Indigo, and her dialogue scenes with Symons crackle. They capture, as does the best of this sleek, gleaming "Gunmetal Blues," a loving, knowing stylization that has its own seductive kick. Hangover not included.
Where: The Colony Theatre, 555 N. 3rd St., Burbank
When: Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. Also Saturdays, Oct. 25 and Nov. 1, 3 p.m.; Thursdays, Nov. 6 and 13, 8 p.m.
Ends: Nov. 16
Info: (818) 558-7000
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes