“The truth you wouldn’t see,” says crusty gumshoe Sam Gallahad, “‘till you finally saw too much.” An attractive woman “had a mouth that would have sent Shakespeare thumbing through a thesaurus.”
Hardboiled fiction’s always been cruisin’ for a bruisin’. Tough-talkers like Philip Marlowe and the Continental Op lead with their rhetorical chins. And some of the best parts of Scott Wentworth’s book for Gunmetal Blues: The Musical, happen when Sam, or one of several platinum blondes, or lounge lizard Buddy Toupee put satiric twists on gruff film noir gab.
As when Sam, in a beige trench coat, says don’t let his iconic look fool you. “I’m expecting rain.”
But the flimsily-plotted book and Craig Bohmler’s songs often step outside the genre and aim for four-alarm seriousness about love and loss and childhood’s end. The result is a quirky homage/spoof that entertains, but often undercuts itself from both sides: it cartoons the characters yet wants you to feel for them as well. The funny parts make the solemn parts feel longer.
“I traded in my fictions for the facts,” Sam boasts, though he can’t shake a fleeting, 10-year-old encounter. He lands a case: one of the town’s richest men took “the Big Shortcut” — committed suicide. Or did he? To find out, Sam bounces from blonde to blonde, all apparently femme fatales (but are they?). Somehow he lands documents that somehow explain everything, but by then any explanation’ll do.
Done well, the material calls for acres of atmosphere and versatile performers to strut the strengths and hide — or just gloss over — weaknesses.
The North Coast Rep has atmosphere a bunch. Marty Burnett’s coal black set’s a basement piano-bar next to an airport (at regular intervals sound designer Chris Leussmann has a jumbo jet howl overhead). At first, the set looks drab, but appropriately so, since Burnett has crafted numerous angles and geometries that enable Matt Novotny’s excellent lighting to glance off them and noir the joint with dazzling back- top- and side-lit effects.
Kevin Bailey’s one of those “Where’s He Been?” performers who make you check his profile in the program at intermission. Bailey talks in a sandpaper, mean-street growl and sings expertly (and cuts loose with “Gunmetal Blues” at the top of Act two, including yakety sax vocal riffs). Bailey comes as close as possible to joining the two contrary Sams by suggesting that the serious one’s a bit of a sap.
Sharon Rietkerk, in Alina Bokovikova’s from homeless to penthouse outfits, plays the five blondes and sings to good effect, though she’s a step away from putting on a personal stamp and owning her numbers. As Buddy Toupee and others, Jeffrey Rockwell plunks the piano, sings, does a commercial for Buddy’s CD (“not available in stores”), and changes characters with the change of a hat. Three offstage musicians, led by Matt Best’s hot saxophone, provide capable backup.