Buddy Toupee’s album of poppy pulp piano tunes isn’t available in stores — and as the central character in North Coast Repertory Theatre’s Gunmetal Blues quips, there’s probably a reason for that. Truth be told, the collection is an extension of the song list from Toupee’s gig at the Red Eye Lounge, a steamy hotel bar near an airport, likely played with the same mail-‘em-in routineness that colors his musicianship. All in a night’s work for Buddy, whose nondescript musings are nonetheless fine by casehardened gumshoe Sam Galahad — Sam’s more interested in the booze anyway, and these tawdry trappings strike a familiar chord in his dank heart.
You’ve seen Sam before, in the person of Dick Powell, Robert Mitchum, Robert Taylor and a million others who’ve played their share of private dicks in the film noir of the 1940s. In fact, you’ve seen Buddy too, along with the million or so female lounge singers who’ve graced Sam’s path. What makes this production very good isn’t the fact that it’s a musical homage to the genre — the lyrics fail to complement the simile-laden dialogue, and they don’t necessarily lend exposition to the characters. It’s the dialogue, the first-person storytelling around the thick, effusive plot, that fuels this piece amid the genre’s indelible place in the public mind.
Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery — and this show is pretty damn sincere in its convictions.
“Don’t let the trench coat fool you,” wiry Sam sizzes in his best Bogie by way of introduction; “I’m expecting rain.” And thus he persists amid his search for the daughter of a crooked businessman found dead in his sprawling home. The investigation leads Sam into countless imbroglios with the era’s cops, femme fatales and mobsters, leaving him drugged or beaten to a bloody pulp (“A Mariachi band was tuning up inside my stomach”); invariably, of course, the girl is one lousy step out of reach.
She smells, of course, “like cigarette smoke and shattered dreams.” When Sam’s client characterizes the death as “tragic,” his wry response is, “Death usually is.” On and on go the cagey quips, reflected in music by those such as tipsy chanteuse Carol Indigo, whose “The Blonde Song” is a total hoot.
But most of those tunes. Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler’s score assumes too much about librettist Scott Wentworth’s family of characters. Buddy’s “Buddy Toupee — Live,” for instance, screams hard sell when we’re not sure who Buddy is yet; Sam’s “Jenny” (and the dialogue that follows) asks the character to turn far too hard on a dime. Gaps in consistency, sometimes sizable, are the usual result. Compare that with Buddy’s turns as an Irish cop, a doorman, a cabbie and others, and the dialogue retains command anew.
Buddy couldn’t imagine anything else but entertaining at the Red Eye (he wouldn’t know what to do even if his album sold), and Jeffrey Rockwell plays him as such. The Irish cop is easily his funniest secondary character, and Sharon Rietkerk earns similar kudos in several roles (her bag-lady stole Princess is totally precious). As Sam, Kevin Bailey has the toughest job of all — persuading us that Bogart isn’t his inspiration while the Casablanca tenor spills all over the stage. He carries it off nimbly under the knowing direction of Andrew Barnicle, who’ll probably pitch his cookies if he sees Casablanca one more time.
Matt Novotny’s lights are an excellent study in shades within shades. And check out Carol Indigo’s sizzling blue cocktail dress as designed by Alina Bokovikova! It all plays out on Marty Burnett’s pat set, which can’t spare one more inch across North Coast’s stage. Rockwell’s musical direction has Matt Best (woodwinds), Tom Versen (drums and percussion) and Fred Ubaldo Jr. (bass) sounding like a septet.
Ironically, the first known use of the term film noir (French for “black film”) was reportedly in 1958. That means that the public had to contrive a way to commit the genre to memory — such was its colossal effect on audiences’ taste for quirkiness and camp. Gunmetal Blues is a savvy look at its cinematic counterpart’s success in the genre, coming away with some hefty nods of respect from those who’ve come before.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Jan. 17. Gunmetal Blues runs through Feb. 15 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. $40-$51, discounts available. (858) 481-1055, northcoastrep.org.