First Night: Musical's pedigree is revealed in black and white: City of Angels

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The Independent Online
IT DID NOT take long for America to fight back. Twenty-four hours after Emma Thompson won her Oscar, Broadway rampaged through and under Leicester Square. A decade or more of English supremacy in the musical may have ended.

City Of Angels, the winner of six Tony awards in New York, opened at the Prince of Wales theatre in London's West End last night with the audience revelling in a piece which fused jazz and big band styles with a witty and perceptive storyline of a writer trying to turn a private-eye novel into a Hollywood movie.

Much of it was staged as film noir, with black and white sets and costumes. And for producers, the rule for a successful first night is if it has got anything resembling a plot, theme it. They had even tried to theme the audience, with Sir John Mills, a star of Forties films, prominent among the guests.

The party, thrown by Felisa Vanoff and Roger Berlind, the producers, was themed. The Cafe de Paris underneath Leicester Square hosted the after-show bash for 700 people with swing band, fountain and palm trees and banqueting chairs in gold and red velvet.

'We wanted to give it the right period feel,' a spokeswoman for the British producer, Robert Fox, said. 'This was the place where Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich performed. It's in keeping with the play. We didn't want a plastic London club.' It would have been unseemly to inform them that it was also the venue for some of the more bizarre freak-outs in the 1960s.

City of Angels came not just laden with awards but with an enviable pedigree in composer, writer and cast. Cy Coleman, the veteran composer of Sweet Charity, said the show was a challenge to work in two idioms 'jazz with its cliffs of brass and the lush, feverish orchestras of 1940s Hollywood film noir'.

But if this was an American conquest, it was amply assisted by British troops led by the director Michael Blakemore and a cast including the Royal Shakespeare Company's Roger Allam, Henry Goodman, Martin Smith and, vocally and comically the revelation of the night, Haydn Gwynne from Channel 4's Drop The Dead Donkey.

The success might also, if such a thing were possible, have brought a smile to crease the face of the show's sardonic writer, Larry Gelbart, who wrote the screenplay for the film Tootsie and commented after his experiences with Dustin Hoffman that you should never work with an actor who is smaller than the Oscar. City of Angels was partly based on Gelbart's experiences of working in Hollywood on Tootsie, and the consistency of the one-liners, which seemed a vanished art in musicals, bears the hallmark of the man who on a fraught pre-Broadway tour of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, mused: 'If Hitler's alive, I hope he's out of town with a musical.'

Though this was still not a musical from which you came out humming, its humour and originality means that Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical Sunset Boulevard will open in June to more threatening competition than he has known for some years. The Gershwin musical Crazy For You last week took a record pounds 250,000 advance bookings in one day. And last night the witty and stylish City Of Angels cocked a snook at the Webberesque through- composed musical. The gauntlet has been thrown down.