‘It was dawn when I left the Red Eye (Lounge). And the rain on my face was a washrag full of straight pins,” is a line that could easily have come from the whiskey breath of any one of the down and almost out private eyes like Powell, Mitchum, or Bogart in those cultish film noirs of the 1940s. But when Sam Galahad (Patrick Quinn), the hard-drinking embittered gumshoe in “Gunmetal Blues,” a wryly respectful musical homage to the genre now playing at George Street Playhouse, says, “Don’t let the trench coat fool you, I’m expecting rain,” we know he wants to share with us his own uniquely sardonic view of life.
Happily book writer Scott Wentworth captures not only the flinty gritty flavor of noir-ish dialogue but also its hard-boiled oeuvre. If the easily forgettable, if jazzy, score by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler had as much style and pizzazz as the consistently amusing dialogue, “Gunmetal Blues” would be a real winner. Oddly, the show remains fun even if it’s a bit of a chore surviving the intrusive and lusterless songs. Most of them sound out of synch with the lingo and out of touch with the characters. Bohmler and Adler showed more appropriate musical savvy setting the old Lunt-Fontanne vehicle “The Guardsman” by Ferenc Molnar to music as “Enter the Guardsman,” which played the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey prior to its short run Off-Broadway in 2000.
It isn’t soon enough that we are back to the tough and tangy and terse talk — Laura: “It was tragic.” Sam: “Death usually is.” For the most part, it’s worth the wait. As it is, it takes all the imaginative illusions that director David Saint and his designer Michael Anania can muster up, and all the brio supplied by the three excellent performers to pull off this lightweight, densely-plotted charade. There is a cleverness to the show’s construction, however, that carries us through its otherwise predictable yet purposefully convoluted course. The familiar echoes of first person singular narrative, so indelibly linked to pulp fiction and the noir films, resonate to fine effect. This is particularly true in the case of Buddy, the Piano Player (Daniel Marcus), who serves as the driver of the show’s exposition, as he tickles the keys in a small airport lounge.
Marcus comes close to stealing the spotlight as the lounge lizard who shamelessly hawks his CD “Buddy Toupee: Live,” and invigoratingly puts over a pair of audience-pleasing patter songs, “Take A Break” (which cues the intermission), and “The Virtuoso.” He also puts on many hats (literally) as a doorman, cabbie, henchman, switchboard operator, and funniest of all, an Irish cop. Marcus, who is also the show’s musical director, allows the three off-stage musicians to take over while he becomes a conduit through the maze of blondes who are destined to lead a misguided Sam astray.
When he isn’t stalled in the mire of the lyrics (“Woke up this morning with a freight train in my head”) or being melancholy about the blonde he had a thing for but who disappeared a decade ago, Quinn affects all the prerequisite attitudes of a jaded sleuth, except when called upon to sing songs that tend to neutralize his toughness. During the song “Gunmetal Blues,” he pulls a harmonica out of his trench coat and plays a few notes for an easy laugh. The plot spins and twists around the shamus’ search for a missing woman, the daughter of a shady business man found dead — was it murder or suicide? — in his mansion. Sam’s investigation finds him drugged and duped by the usual roundup of suspicious characters, all played by Allison Fraser and Marcus.
Fraser appears to be having lots of fun playing a variety of sexy, scheming blonde femme fatales, and even a bag lady. Fraser, who had her reign as the toast of Broadway in “Romance/Romance” (1988) has been seen to good advantage in two plays at George Street in the past couple of seasons (“Lend Me a Tenor” and “Lips Together, Teeth Apart”). She puts a lot of verve into her performing as she peers out from behind her peek-a-boo hairdo (shades of Veronica Lake). She is at her most amusing and flamboyant in “Gunmetal Blues” as Carol Indigo, a tipsy chanteuse. Her reckless stumbling about and just barely being able to get through “The Blonde Song” is a hoot. What makes it even funnier (for noir fans), is that she has been poured into an electric blue strapless gown and long gloves that evoke a memory of Rita Hayworth in the film “Gilda.” Designer David Murin is to be commended for all of Fraser’s evocative costumes, including a revealing lavender negligee, and also for the grey double breasted pin-stripe suit worn by Quinn.
The brilliant Anania, who for years was the resident designer for the Paper Mill Playhouse, has created a shadowy and fluid turntable world that spins from a stark office to a dark street corner, a mirrored mansion to a chrome trimmed lounge, all atmospherically enhanced by Christopher J. Bailey’s expert lighting. It’s a shame that this hard-boiled show is stuck with a soft-boiled score. The audience, however, seemed to lap it all up. To its credit, “Gunmetal Blues,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 1992, has had more than 100 productions in the United States and Canada. But like Sam says (referring to Buddy’s LP), “It’s not available in stores.”
“Gunmetal Blues,” through April 30, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. $32 to $60. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.