Gunmetal Blues proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the hard-boiled detective story is ripe for parody. Take its trench-coated hero and its mysterious blonde, put 'em in a dingy setting with lots of light streaming through window blinds, stir in a mystery with a few surprising twists and turns, and sprinkle in first-person narration peppered with dazzlingly funny metaphors, and you've got one hell of a good time at the theatre.
Gunmetal Blues throws in an additional ingredient, and makes the show a musical. Some music necessarily belongs in a show like this. Film noir narration wouldn't be right without the tapping cymbals or jazzy piano in the background. And the plot of Gunmetal Blues offers further musical opportunities by being set in a piano bar, where a sultry blonde singer frequently performs. The best songs in Gunmetal Blues are those sung by the pianist, Buddy Toupee, and the lounge singer, Carol Indigo. Toupee has a delightful pair of songs that sandwich the intermission, in which he mocks the very show he's in, but he does so with such charm and respect that he really isn't mocking it at all. And Indigo brings down the house with "The Blonde Song," a number she has just the tiniest bit of trouble delivering, because of her state of inebriation.
Other characters have songs as well, although they tend to be more dramatic than comic and, as a rule, generally less effective. But the show gets into real trouble when its protagonist detective bursts into song. It isn't a problem with the actor, but with the character. Hard-boiled detectives have a standard way of speaking - they don't say much, and what they say has a certain meter to it. They go on for a short time and then there's a twist or smart-ass comment at the end. Book writer Scott Wentworth recreates this perfectly for the speech of detective Sam Galahad. Songwriters Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler, however, do not retain it in either the lyrics or the tempo of Galahad's songs. Director Andrew Barnicle, who played Galahad at the Laguna Playhouse, notes in his Director's Note that, in musical theatre, songs "serve as abstract narration for what is going on in the hearts and minds of the characters, much like the voiceover narration of the hard-boiled detective stories." But this is precisely the problem. Galahad's inner voice is already being heard through the voice-over narration; his singing voice should not be a different one. Until Bohmler and Adler can write a song that remains true to classic private dick narration, Galahad simply has no business singing.
Technical credits are a little shaky compared to the Colony's usual standards. Dwight Richard Odle gives Wood a variety of costumes for her four blondes, but the one she wears in the climactic scene was so low-cut, the audience is distracted from the key dialogue by Wood's attempt to keep from flashing the crowd. A number called "Shadowplay" is apparently intended to be accompanied by a silhouette in a window, but Paulie Jenkins's lighting misfired on the performance I attended, and we just saw a woman badly lit through the blinds. And, although the dialogue refers to a flashing red sign, no reflected flashing red light appears anywhere to accompany it.
All of the show's drawbacks are extremely disappointing, because Gunmetal Blues is a show with so much to like in it. The book is genuinely funny and the lyrics frequently intelligent. When the show hits its stride, particularly at the top of the second act, it is a reminder of how good a smart comic musical can be.
Gunmetal Blues plays at The Colony Theatre in Burbank through November 16, 2003. www.colonytheatre.org.
The Colony Theatre Company, Barbara Beckley, Producing Director, presents Gunmetal Blues. Book by Scott Wentworth; Music & Lyrics by Craig Bohmler & Marion Adler. The Character of Buddy Toupee was inspired by the work of Richard March. Scenic Design by John Berger; Lighting Design by Paulie Jenkins; Sound Design by Drew Dalzell; Costume Design by Dwight Richard Odle; Marketing/Public Relations by David Elzer/Demand PR; Production Stage Manager Vernon Willet; Production Assistant Rachelle Horak; Musical Direction by Jeffrey Rockwell; Directed by Andrew Barnicle.