Audiences for Actors Theatre of Phoenix's newest catastrophe may exit the theater feeling they've missed something more than a good time. Gunmetal Blues is so fast-paced that it's tough to keep up with its cartload of clues and myriad references to old movies. Unfortunately, the show's breakneck pacing doesn't disguise its illogical story or--in the case of this overeager local production--its klutzy staging.

This tuneless musical spoof of film noir originated in Phoenix in the early Nineties, then headed for off-Broadway, where it was lauded by The New Yorker as "a wonderful little Chandleresque musical." Gunmetal Blues is certainly little. So, apparently, is its intended audience. A show this full of crime-movie in-jokes should provide something for patrons who aren't up on their Sam Spade, but the only laughs offered by Scott Wentworth's script are aimed at those of us who find suppressive narrative and references to Howard Hawks amusing.

The rest of us are left to wonder why we should care that Sam (Paul Welterlen), a guileless gumshoe who left town 10 years ago under mysterious circumstances, has returned to shadow a shady dame (Heidi Ewart) whose father has just been murdered. Set mostly in an airport hotel lounge presided over by queeny pianist Buddy Toupee (Jerry Wayne Harkey), Gunmetal Blues provides various riffs on Raymond Chandler and a trunkload of jarring songs, but nothing in the way of a lucid story.

If there's a principle at work here, I couldn't put my finger on it. Author Wentworth appears to be focused on the greater concept of noir rather than its more recognizable elements, like flashback devices and Humphrey Bogart impersonations. He also ignores noir's most important element: suspense. If there's a bomb ticking under the stage, neither the characters in the would-be story nor the audience knows this. If Wentworth's dialogue sounds occasionally authentic ("You workin' on a case, Sam?" "Right now, all I'm working on is this bottle."), none of it--nor Craig Bohmler's and Marion Adler's songs--does anything to advance the story or provide us with any legible clues. Ultimately, there's neither any real mystery to solve, nor an amusing goof on this lack-of-a-mystery-in-a-mystery spoof.

One needs a scorecard not only to tally the nonsensical clues to Wentworth's wild mystery but also to plot the puzzling story, which director Michael Barnard further muddies up with unnecessary bits of business and blase blocking. Although he's charged with re-creating noir's claustrophobic underworld, Barnard aims every musical number out into the audience, as if the denizens of Gunmetal's various dives exist not in noir's dark, smoky pockets but on the glittery stage of a book musical. Billy Wilder never directed anyone to "Sing out, Louise!"

Barnard has somehow mistaken noir's demure dramatics with overacting, and asked his players to do the same. Harkey, a talented tunesmith who does double duty as musical director and actor, mugs shamelessly in a series of character parts, each of them very much like the one before. His Irish cop is indistinguishable from his Italian mobster, who sounds suspiciously like his Arab cab driver. Harkey's break comes at the top of Act Two, when he performs one of the show's two memorable songs, this one a television commercial for "Buddy Toupee Live," one of those cheesy cassette packages that lounge singers sometimes hawk. Harkey plays appealingly, but the song drones on, selling the same joke in each verse.

The other notable number belongs to Welterlen, who croons "Jenny," a subtle homage to Andrew Lloyd Webber's stickier story songs. Welterlen's singing is a little flat at times, but at least he discovers the wise-guy stance of the song and runs with it.

Ewart's performance as several different hard-luck dames is the show's single consistent virtue. One minute she's bitchy Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity, waving a Luger at her lover; the next she's tormented Teresa Wright in Shadow of a Doubt; always she's captivating, an unwavering spotlight in this dark, otherwise dull evening.

Ewart looks great, too, thanks in part to David Anaya's Hollywoodesque makeovers. For once, Anaya's makeup matches the faces he's painting: Ewart is glamorous as the moll, tarty as the clip-joint gal, and sufficiently slovenly as the bag lady. Anaya turns Harkey into a bewigged waxwork, perfect for Buddy Toupee, who's seen mostly from the neck up. Paul Black's lighting design holds to the dark palette that is noir's single common denominator, and dresses up Jeff Thomson's unexciting scenic design with long, expressive shadows worthy of any Warner programmer.

Somewhere in this messy muddle of archetypes is a long list of noir references, some of which I was able to fish out but most of which are lost in a stew of cinematic in-jokes. Gunmetal Blues is intended as sophisticated fun, but it will require a stronger production--and several rewrites--before it's more than just confounding nonsense.

Gunmetal Blues continues through Sunday, February 7, in Stage West of Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela