NEW YORK — CITY OF ANGELS Musical by Larry Gelbart (book), Cy Coleman (music), and David Zippel (lyrics). Directed by Michael Blakemore. Musical numbers staged by Walter Painter. Starring James Naughton, Gregg Edelman. At the Virginia Theatre. HAVING trounced the Iran-Contra hearings with the recently closed ``Mastergate,'' Larry Gelbart is trashing 1940s Hollywood in the recently opened ``City of Angels.'' With Cy Coleman and David Zippel, Mr. Gelbart has created a sardonic story-within-a-story involving some double identities (though not indemnities) and enough cross-plotting to require two lists of characters: the ``Movie Cast'' and the ``Hollywood Cast.''
To take the last first, the Hollywood cast features Stine (Gregg Edelman), a philandering writer who is adapting his private-eye novel for megalomaniacal producer-director Buddy Fidler (Rene Auberjonois). ``City of Angels'' moves nervously back and forth between the tangible world of Stine's ordeal and the filmic world of tough-guy shamus Stone (James Naughton), in which Fidler and company turn up as fictional characters in a Philip Marlowe-type whodunit.
Besides the opportunities the double vision provides for acting versatility, the gimmick keeps scene designer Robin Wagner ingeniously busy shifting milieus from the silver screen to various gorgeously Technicolored locales. Simulated cinema techniques include voice-overs, flashbacks, rear projections, and rewinds (the characters move and speak in reverse). Randy Graff, Dee Hoty, Kay McClelland, Shawn Elliott, and Rachel York and others meet the exacting demands of the double-duty transitions in a performance that revels in Michael Blakemore's razzle-dazzle staging.
Basically, ``City of Angels'' deals with Stine's battle for his integrity as an author. In view of his philandering proclivities, however, Stine challenges Mr. Edelman's efforts to win sympathy for the weakling hero. Mr. Naughton fares better with the sardonic Stone. ``City of Angels'' climaxes - and Edelman seizes the opportunity - when a rebellious Stine declares his independence from studio oppression, takes over the set, and makes peace with his gritty fictional hero.
From the overture's warning dissonances, composer Coleman has kept faith with the abrasive nature of the book. The jazzy score is typified by the Stine-Stone duet, ``You're Nothing Without Me.'' In a more sentimental mood, Bobbi's ``With Every Breath I Take'' conforms to its cocktail-lounge atmosphere. The musical performance isn't helped by frequent over-amplification. The production has been brilliantly costumed by Florence Klotz to suit the transformations and glitzily lighted by Paul Gallo.
A Broadway musical may be as good as any other vehicle for airing an embittered writer's cynicism. Gelbart presents his gripes with a comic twist. As popular entertainment, however, ``City of Angels'' has lots of just about everything except charm and heart.