(January 8, 2008)

Dropping in on “City of Angels”

Peter D. Kramer/The Journal News

I got the assignment to head to Hastings High School.

Seems they've got a musical they're getting ready for, a film-noir musical called "City of Angels" that runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

It won a bunch of Tonys back in 1990, including best musical.

See what you can find out, I was told.

It was dark by the time I pulled up to the school - a tall, brick job that sits on Farragut and Mount Hope.

It was cold.

Too cold.

Some kids were learning a dance routine in the lobby while stage manager Ben Andersen rattled off assignments in the theater.

I've been to plenty of musical rehearsals and this one was quiet.

Too quiet.

"City of Angels" hit Broadway in a big way. It was nominated for 11 Tonys and went home with 6.

It has a book by Larry Gelbart, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by David Zippel.

In a nutshell, "City of Angels" is about a screenwriter named Stine writing a film-noir script about a detective named Stone. On stage, the film-noir movie scenes are in black-and-white; the Hollywood world of screenwriter Stine is in living color.

What this means to a stage manager like Andersen is that when action is going on in the black-and-white scenes stage left, his stage crew can be quickly and quietly setting the next color scene stage right.

At this too-quiet rehearsal, set designer Adam Hart and his crew stapled black scrim curtains onto a frame and screwed it into position.

Andersen - a senior who has worked on a slew of shows - was assigning jobs to his running crew, assisted by junior Emma Altman. Next year, it'll be Altman's job. Now, it's Andersen's.

The guy is good. Too good.

He knows who puts the chairs on stage and who makes sure the bed is put in the right spot. He knows who takes them off.

Before a gumshoe can step into his spotlight, there are plenty of questions to answer.

The guy with the answers is Andersen.

"I always loved theater, but I can't act," he says. "I've been doing stage-crew work since fifth grade."

He's one of those guys whose confidence is catchy. He says he had never heard of "City of Angels" when director Laurie Walton announced that it would be Hastings' musical for 2008.

If he didn't know it then, he knows it by heart now.

"I know this is a really slow process," he tells his stage crew as they get their assignments, "but this is how we don't have a panic on stage."

Andersen oversees all the technical aspects of the production, even though, he confesses, he's not technically savvy. He leaves that to his running crew of eight and a stage crew of 18.

This year's Hastings musical is earlier than last year's sold-out production of "West Side Story," which was in May. They've added a Sunday matinee to the run this year to accommodate more theatergoers.

The timing helped Andersen, who had actors join his crew because it meant a two-week commitment, not the weeks they would have needed to put in to act in the show.

When Andersen learned he had 18 people to help him, he wondered how he'd keep them all busy.

Then he saw the three-page prop list with 64 individual prop pieces. Then he saw that there were about 40 scenes.

Plenty of work to go around.

Andersen also has the help of Andrew Tergis, a 2006 Hastings graduate who's studying electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Tergis is involved in theater at RPI, which recently mounted a production of "City of Angels."

Tergis is helping with the lights, making the black-and-white side of the stage cool and the color side warm.

Separating the two sides of the set is an oversized frame of a film strip whereon video artist Larry DiBello will project the show's opening credits.

Andersen says his crew's work isn't about getting glory.

"If we're doing everything right, we're invisible, not seen and not heard," he says.

That's not to say that the actors won't be heard. The school's foundation last year donated new body mikes to the program - and one of Andersen's team will be overseeing that aspect of the production.

During the show, Andersen will be in the balcony, calling lighting and sound cues and set-changes.

And hoping that those set changes are quiet.

Too quiet.