The first time the late night band of the Red Eye Lounge played its Gunmetal Blues was in May 1991. It was at Phoenix Theatre in Phoenix under the direction of Michael Barnard, though at the time it was called Phoenix Little Theatre. That was 27 years ago.
Circling back to where it began, Gunmetal Blues, the gumshoe, small-scale musical disguised as a late night lounge act, currently plays at Hardes Theater @ Phoenix Theatre until June 3, this time directed with a keen eye for the genre by Tim Shawver. It’s A/C Theatre Company’s concluding production of the season, a thoroughly entertaining evening of stylized musical theatre, a murder mystery presented with shadows, silhouettes, and shards of dusty lights beaming down through half-open shutters, the kind of story possessing that delicious Chandleresque dialog where a narrator tells you that the truth “… is something you couldn’t see ‘till you finally saw too much.”
With a cast of two males, one female, and a four-piece band that actually sounds better and more accomplished than most small nightclub bands you might find playing in an airport hotel lounge, Gunmetal Blues takes us down those back alleys of an unnamed city, one full of smoky bars and mysteries that lie sleeping until prodded and eventually exposed. As private detective Sam Galahad (David Dickinson) tells us, it all begins with an important man named Adrian Wasp committing suicide.
At least, that’s what the newspaper headline says in huge letters, but maybe there’s something more foul afoot. Maybe it was murder, and if it was murder, then who committed the crime, and why? Was it a blonde called Carol Indigo, or maybe another blonde called Laura Vesper? Or maybe it was Princess, the all-observing bag lady who might know more than she’s willing to tell. Then again, it could have been Jenny, but Jenny has vanished and needs to be found. As Sam observes once shown a picture of the woman he needs to locate, “She had a mouth that would have Shakespeare thumbing through a thesaurus.”
Steve Hilderbrand plays the Red Eye Lounge all observing piano player, a one-man, jazz inclined Greek Chorus called Buddy Toupee who not only comments on the action while filling in the blanks of what the detective might be thinking, but also narrates the plot. A talented piano player and singer in his own right, at the switch of a hat and a comical change of accent, Hilderbrand morphs from the lounge act into a series of engaging characters Sam will meet along the way while investigating the mystery of Jenny’s whereabouts, including an Irish cop (of course he’s Irish) and a threatening thug.
With a trenchcoat and a slightly cocked hat shading his eyes, Dickinson’s whiskey-soaked private-eye, Sam Galahad is really Sam Spade with accompanying songs. And in a piece like Gunmetal Blues, that’s exactly as he should be. Plus, in the true tradition of someone Dashiell Hammett might write about, even though the character is unflinching and has an unsentimental style of detachment while looking for clues, he remains funny. While suffering from a hangover with his head buried in his hands, a saxophone solo from the band causes Sam to flinch and glance across the set to the musician with a disapproving glare. And when describing the looks of one of the several blondes he meets throughout the case, he states, “Forget about ships. This face could launch a thousand rockets.” By playing him straight, Dickinson makes his detective a character that doesn’t know how funny he is.
And as all the blondes of varying hair lengths, Kim Richard makes the right kind of tantalizing impression that works so well. She’s the seductive dame that Sam met ten years earlier, the one he can’t forget, and with good reason. She’s also Carol, and she’s Laura. And as the bag lady, Princess, she has perhaps the best, and more surprisingly, the most moving song of the score, I’m The One That Got Away, made even better by the strength of Richard’s clear vocal delivery.
Writer Scott Wentworth’s humorous dialog is also complimented by Marion Adler’s equally amusing lyrics (backed by Craig Bohmler’s appropriately atmospheric jazzy score) where Adler makes ‘man enough’ somehow rhyme with classical composer Rachmaninoff, and Sam’s detective is described as being “the hat in the rear-view mirror.” Particularly funny is Buddy’s musical hawking of his live night club recordings, the one not available in stores, where audiences can call in and make a purchase; Visa and Mastercard accepted. The joke is taken one step further when Sam makes a call, is put on hold, and hears the same recorded pitch moments later while hanging on the line.
In truth, there’s a tendency to get lost in the plot, particularly in the second half where the intentionally convoluted circumstances of Sam’s investigations and the various characters he meets begin to pile, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. What works so well is the engaging journey, along with the production’s style, its terrific humor, the performances of the three players, and the overall design of a world full of double-dealers and hard-nosed detectives. “Trouble is my middle name,” states Sam. “It used to be Tall, Dark, and Handsome,” he adds, “But I changed it.” Gunmetal Blues is seriously stylish, musical fun.
A/C Theatre Company’s production of Gunmetal Blues continues at Hardes Theatre @ Phoenix Theatre until June 3
Pictures Courtesy of Durant Photography