With two plots happening simultaneously – one live on stage and the other on film – City of Angels is no easy undertaking. Add a musical theatre treatment and it can be downright intimidating for any theatre company.
It is perhaps not surprising then to find out it has taken almost seven years for the upcoming Vancouver production to finally reach the Performance Works stage on Granville Island.
“I was approached by Christopher Shyer six or seven years ago who had it in his mind to produce this massive show,” explains Jennifer Copping, who both directs and performs. “He thought it was something I might be interested in, and along with Michelle Harrison we started scheming and dreaming on how to bring it to reality.”
As with many artistic endeavours though, it is all in the timing. As original plans became sidelined by other opportunities, the real work in bringing City of Angels to a Vancouver stage began just over a year ago.
“In the interim I fell in love with what is musical theatre royalty,” continues Copping. “And I’m really excited to be able to share it now.”
Set in Hollywood of the late 1940s, City of Angels is two stories in one: a comedy and a detective drama.
Telling the story of a New York crime novelist who agrees to adapt his book into a screenplay, while his film adaptation plays out in black-and-white he struggles to navigate his way through the Hollywood movie making-process in the live action.
Adding to the complexity, most of the cast – an impressive 19 in this production – double as characters in both the film and on stage. “We decided to go big or go home,” says Copping with a laugh.
If the show-within-a-show concept wasn’t enough, City of Angels is also a musical.
“Music is such a big part of the film noir genre and is key to the characters,” explains Crystal Balint who plays the dual roles of femme fatale Alaura in the movie, and the film producer’s wife Carla in the live story.
“If you watch film noir movies there is a terrifically alive element to the music, and without it these films would not be quite as dynamic,” she continues.
“The film becomes its own character and music really supports that,” adds Copping. “A lot of times our band will be underscoring live while we’re watching the movie, like what they did in the movie houses of the 1940s, and then play right into the live action.”
Shot over two full days, the movie scenes were being readied by the show’s film editor at the time of this interview. Given the movie’s film noir feel it also required colour correction to fit the black-and-white format.
“We definitely had to have all our ducks in a row, but we are ready and are having lots of fun where the two worlds collide,” says Copping.
Part of the intersection between film and stage comes from the choices Copping has made in capturing the tone of the 1940s.
“What you’re going to see is very heightened and stylized,” says Copping. “The 1940s had a certain pace and the writing is super sassy and smart. The acting will reflect that: one world is snappy 40s stylized and the other is ramped up ten notches.”
For Balint, finding the qualities as the movie’s femme fatale came from watching films of the era, and in Hollywood stars like Katherine Hepburn.
“I love old films and there is something so seductive about a woman who can kill you with a look,” says Balint. “There is something about the 40’s dialect where women took elocution lessons and the mannerisms were very specific.”
As a woman of colour, Balint also finds herself in a role traditionally cast as Caucasian.
“When we auditioned Crystal and many other actresses in Vancouver, we had an open mind,” says Copping. “We knew we wanted to have diversity in our cast, but we also had the reality of knowing this was 1940s Hollywood. As it turned out though, after seeing many people before her, Crystal was the right person for the role.”
To help immerse audiences into the story further, Copping is using the venue to her full advantage.
“There is an interactiveness to the piece, and we chose Performance Works because it is so large,” she says. “We want audiences to feel like they’ve just walked onto a Hollywood sound stage.”
Or perhaps in this case, a Hollywood North sound stage.
City of Angels plays Performance Works on Granville Island (1218 Cartwright St, Vancouver) from July 8-17. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.