Tuesday, February 16, 2016

an interview with Phillip Fazio, the director of CITY OF ANGELS, opening at Theater Works this Friday

Phillip Fazio
by Gil Benbrook

The 1989 musical City of Angels won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Book and Score, and ran for two years on Broadway, yet it is a show that very few people have ever seen. Fortunately, Theater Works in Peoria is presenting the show in a production featuring the creative team from their hit production of Follies from last season. Phillip Fazio directed the Phoenix premiere of Follies to great acclaim. He's back at Theater Works directing City of Angels, opening on Friday, which, like Follies, is another show that has been rarely seen in the Valley.

Frank Rich, in his NY Times review, called Larry Gelbart's book for the show "flat-out funny" with "no end to the cleverness" and proclaimed Cy Coleman and David Zippel's score, "a delirious celebration of jazz and pop styles."

Featuring a sensational jazz score, City of Angels moves between the beautiful,yet slightly seedy, Technicolor world of 1940s Hollywood, where New York novelist Stine has been hired to adapt his book into a film, and the black and white world of the film he is writing. While the disillusioned Stine writes, rewrites and deals with the temptations and distractions of Hollywood while his wife is back in NY, his screenplay comes to life in front of us in the form of a film noir private eye mystery led by private eye Stone. City of Angels is witty, glamorous, full of suspense and completely original.

Born and raised in Phoenix, Fazio earned his BFA in Musical Theatre/Directing at The Boston Conservatory, and right after graduating served for three years as an Artist in Residence at Phoenix Theatre. He then moved to New York City, where he has directed shows both Off Broadway as well as at the New York International Fringe Festival. But he has come back to the Valley numerous times to direct over a dozen shows at theatres across the Valley, from The Quiltmaker's Gift at Phoenix Theatre to Next to Normal and August: Osage County for Mesa Encore Theatre and Ragtime, Follies and now City of Angels for Theater Works. Fazio also just served as the Assistant Director for West Side Story at the Signature Theatre in Washington DC.

Fazio sat down during rehearsals for the show to answer some questions about City of Angels exclusively for PHX Stages.

Matt Zimmerer as Stone (top)
and Ian Christiansen as Stein (bottom)
photo: Wade Moran
City of Angels is a show that many people haven’t seen. For those who may not know it, what can you tell them that the musical is about?

"Set in 1940s Los Angeles, City of Angels is a musical comedy that satirizes the Hollywood studios of the time while lovingly parodying the iconic genre of film noir. In my opinion, it is one of the few musicals that has an equally strong book and score. The incredible jazz music was written by the brilliant Cy Coleman, the witty and insightful lyrics are by David Zippel, and the superb script is by the legendary Larry Gelbart. Together these three created a show that is smart, sexy, and sophisticated  - three words we unfortunately don’t usually associate with musicals.

The show weaves together two plots, the "real" world of a writer turning his novel into a screenplay, and the "reel" world of the glamorous film noir movie in the writer’s mind. The story alternates between the black and white world of the film and the technicolor world of the studio that is producing the movie. With the exception of two roles (Stone and Stine), all of the actors play parts in both the noir and color world."

Why do you think it is rarely produced?

"I have no doubt City of Angels is rarely done because it is one of the most difficult shows to produce, in terms of creating the design elements and casting the roles. Due to the fact that half of the show takes place inside a black and white world, there are a whole slew of design challenges as far as sets, costumes, lighting, etc. Add on top of that the fact that the jazz music is extremely difficult to master. When you listen to it, the score sounds snappy and slick, but it takes a lot of time and hard work to make this complicated music sound effortless. But the fact that it is so rarely produced is, for me, a tribute to City of Angels. Yes, it is a complex musical filed with numerous challenges, but if you can successfully conquer those challenges the reward is well worth the work."

There are two distinct worlds in City of Angels: the black and white film noir world of the book, and the color of 1940s Hollywood, where the book is being adapted into the film. How are you ensuring this will be easy for the audience to comprehend?

"I am so thankful to have phenomenal design team of professionals who all jumped head first into the requirement of creating two distinct and believable worlds. We have had countless meetings and discussed for hours how we are going to navigate through the inherit challenges of the material. Our goal is to authentically replicate the visual experience of watching a classic film noir movie and I believe audiences will grade us quite well on this task."

Brett Aiken's original set design sketch
courtesy Brett Aiken
What can you tell us about the set design and how you are using that to separate the two worlds of the show?

"City of Angels has over 40 scenes in total and almost all of the scenes take place in different locations. The original Broadway production had such a large set design that it was deemed impossible to go out of town for a tryout. This meant that the first public performance of City of Angels happened on Broadway which was a rare thing 25 years ago. Brett Aiken, our set designer, and I spent many hours trying to figure out how to move from scene to scene in an effortless, cinematic way. For the most part, we have separated the stage (and therefore the set) into two sections. Stage left is the colorful 1940s Hollywood world and stage right is the black and white noir world of the film.  Several moving pieces are quickly rolled on and off to create the many locations of the two worlds."

On Broadway, several of the noir scenes used film backgrounds, how are you planning to present those moments?

"I didn’t want to use video projections. I think projection backgrounds work for some shows, but I don’t believe this is one of them. Personally, I think it’s a bit of a cop-out to tell the audience “this black and white scene you’re watching is a movie” and then play a video of a black and white set behind them. Instead we have developed a set and lighting design that will allow the many scenes in the noir world to take place in tight, carefully lit, close-ups. By utilizing this style of lighting and a set design with many rolling pieces, we will be able to create two specific and separate worlds while also changing locations quickly and not breaking the action of the story."

City of Angels is a sophisticated musical with an intricate and complex structure. How do you think it’s going to resonate with Phoenix audiences, most of whom have never seen a production before?

"I honestly think Phoenix audiences are going to love it! I cannot wait for our first audience to walk into the theater and experience a show that is this well written, with a cast as talented as ours, featuring a live orchestra playing this incredible music that most people have never heard before. I think it will be like having a cold glass of lemonade on a hot Arizona day."

Phillip Fazio on the City of Angels set during rehearsals
photo: Cate Hinkle / Theater Works
City of Angels may just be the only all-jazz musical with Cy Coleman and David Zippel’s catchy score featuring several showstopping songs, as well as a jazz quartet that sing the overture and comment on the action throughout. Fortunately you have well regarded music director Steve Hilderbrand taking on the music duties but have you found any difficulties with your cast, who may not be as familiar with the specific jazz styles of the score?

"Oh of course. Steve was terrified we weren’t going to find four people to adequately sing the jazz quartet material. Well not only did we find them, we found six of them! Due to the wealth of talent at auditions we decided to expand the jazz quartet to a sextet and let me tell you, they sound incredible. The six of them started having music rehearsals in December (about a month before the rest of the cast) so that Steve could meticulous work on their extremely difficult music. I have been completely blown away by how fantastic they sound and I cannot wait for audience to hear all these glorious songs sung by these amazing performers."

Alanna Kalbfleisch and Matt Zimmerer
photo: Wade Moran
1940s Hollywood and Film Noir were dominated by men, yet it is the character of the “femme fatale” that holds much of the power in that genre of movies. City of Angels doesn’t hold back with its strong female characters. How are you instructing your actresses in playing those roles?

"It’s funny you ask that. This show was written by three men and originally directed and choreographed by two men. While there are some very strong and interesting female characters, the focus and perspective of the show is so clearly from a man’s point of view. Without changing a word of text, I am very proud to say that we have created a staging that is well balanced and in my opinion more fulfilling to all of the major characters. But to further answer your question, in the first few days of rehearsal we talked a lot about the style of film noir. We watched clips from a few movies to help guide us on our adventure into this world. We never wanted to mock or camp up the noir scenes. Our goal was to be true to the style and 'rules' of a film noir movie."

Is the challenge of directing a musical like City of Angels, which will seem like a new show to many people who don’t know it, or are only familiar with the cast recording, exciting or daunting? 

"I actually think it’s exciting AND daunting. I love directing rarely produced and under appreciated shows, mostly because they tend to be the type of theater pieces I’m attracted to. I find it thrilling to know that a large portion of our audiences will have never seen this show before, but it also means we have to work even harder to tell a clear story."

Kelli James in Follies
Theater Works - 2015
photo: Alastair Gamble
Last spring you directed Follies at Theater Works and for this production you've assembled many of the same creative team you worked with on that production. I’m sure this makes it easier, especially for a lesser known show like this one, in having people that you’ve worked with before. But your cast is relatively all people who weren’t in Follies. With the combination of familiar faces and new ones, have you encountered any difficulties in directing the show? 

"I am very lucky to not just have had a stellar cast for Follies, but to strike lighting again with City of Angels! Our cast has been extremely professional and so enthusiastic to dig in to this luscious show and do all of the hard work necessary to make it as strong as possible. I couldn’t be more proud of what they have accomplished and I cannot wait for audiences to see what they’ve been cooking up."

Do you have a favorite moment in the musical?

"It changes after each rehearsal! There are so many countless favorites of mine, it would be unfair to name one. I have no doubt that our audiences will walk away talking about several of the big show stopping songs, some the hysterical comedic scenes, and of course our orchestra playing this glorious score."

What do you hope audiences will take away from it?

"I hope audiences leave with a big smile on their face because they just watched a bunch of stellar actors perform this fantastic material with a phenomenal 14 piece band that blows the roof off the Peoria Center for the Arts while playing this incredible music."

For more information on City of Angels at Theatre Works, which runs Feburary 19th to March 6th, CLICK HERE

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