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THEATRE / Bright lights, big city: As City of Angels opens at the Prince of Wales, Rhoda Koenig casts an eye

THERE'S nothing wrong with musicals being mindless, so long as they're not heartless as well. Those who are bothered by the low intellectual level of most musical shows can certainly find solace in City of Angels, which takes us to Hollywood in the late Forties, a world of schemers, sycophants, sluts, and schmucks (the last, of course, a synonym for 'writers'). Not only is Larry Gelbart's brainy book funnier than most straight comedies: David Zippel's lyrics sparkle, Robin Wagner's scenery is stylish, even Paul Gallo's lighting is notable for its wit. Michael Blakemore's production also has plenty to appeal to the senses: the Chandler-esque story we watch being filmed has lavish sets, clever musical staging (by Walter Painter), and the kind of blonde for whom a bishop would kick a hole in a plate-glass window.

The private-eye movie is being written by Stine, whose biggest problem in adapting his novel is getting his page past producer-director Buddy Fidler, the tyrant of the lot, who owns every starlet's mouth and every writer's conscience. Stine's wife, Gabby, hates Hollywood, not just for corrupting her husband's work but for tempting him with the proximity of such long-legged beauties as Donna, Buddy's lovelorn secretary. As Stine battles with Buddy and Gabby, and his own despair and lust, his struggles are reflected in the script of his movie, whose characters have real-life counterparts. But the influence doesn't go in only one direction: the real characters start speaking the movie characters' lines (both parallel parts are played by the same actors); Stone, rebelling against Buddy's corny revisions, urges Stine to be a tough guy like him.

In an excellent cast, Roger Allam stands out as the intense, unflappable Stone, remarking matter-of-factly of his client that 'only the floor kept her legs from going on forever', and singing without removing his cigarette. Haydn Gwynne is hilariously plaintive, bemoaning her status as the perpetual other woman, whose beau 'can't introduce the girl he's with / There's lots of smirking motel clerks who call me 'Mrs Smith' '. Like the studio, however, the evening is dominated by Henry Goodman's Buddy, for whom the phrase 'bumptious megalomaniac' is not a tautology.

Cy Coleman's music is certainly atmospheric - when did you last hear a musical begin with a minor chord? But its pastiche of contemporary jazz, swing, and Latin rhythms is atmospheric in another sense - so insubstantial it dissipates as you're hearing it. Nor is dance a feature of a show whose wisecracking characters stretch credibility by singing. And, though Gelbart's book is unremittingly clever, the moral problem it poses is a phoney one (hey, it's a detective story, not Faust), and its ending uses irony to camouflage faulty construction. It may seem ungrateful, in this dismal period for musicals, to point it out, but, for all its virtues, City of Angels lacks the sentiment and exultation that, ideally, is produced in the theatre when words meet music. As another show's lyricist said: 'Oh, it's fine to be a genius, of course / But keep that old horse before the cart / First, you gotta have heart.'

(Photograph omitted)