Live From the Red Eye

Blending both humor and sincerity, Invisible Theatre's 'Gunmetal Blues' offers a pleasant surprise

I know what you're thinking, because I thought the same thing--and we're both wrong.

Invisible Theatre is putting on Gunmetal Blues, a musical inspired by the gritty 1930s-'40s private-detective stories of writers like Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler. It rattles off lines like, "The rain on my face was a washrag full of straight pins." You can't really take that seriously unless it's coming straight from Hammet or Chandler. And this is a musical, remember, in which two of the stars are longtime regulars at Gaslight Theatre.

You're thinking: This is just another silly, fluffy spoof.

But you're as wrong as stilettos on a choirboy. Sure, Gunmetal Blues starts off as a send-up of more noir clichés than you can list on a corpse's toe tag, but the writers, actors and director take their characters' emotions seriously. They're using some well-worn conventions to tell us a story about people worth caring about, not laughing at.

The action, we are told, takes place at the Red Eye Lounge, "one of those bars in one of those hotels out by an airport." The time is "one of those nights. Pretty late." The unnamed city is apparently fairly big, but not so big that half of it can't be owned by one man: a millionaire named Adrian Wasp, who has just spent his last night bleeding on his parquet, a bullet cozying up to his frontal lobe. The cops call it suicide, at least in public. Privately, they've got questions. Where, for example, is Wasp's emotionally unstable daughter, Jennifer? She's dropped out of sight.

The next day, detective Sam Galahad hears the tap of expensive shoes on the cheap linoleum leading to his office: The shoes belong to a statuesque blonde called Laura Vesper; she hires Sam to find Jenny on the Q.T. The investigation leads Sam to a bag lady named Princess, and an alcoholic, dangerously blonde lounge singer called Carol Indigo. Sam also has run-ins with an Irish cop and a mob kingpin, and all along the way, he's watched over by Buddy Toupee, the lounge pianist at Sam's favorite hangout, the Red Eye. It's a place where Sam can sit and watch people on their way to someplace else, and imagine that he is, too.

That last detail is one of several that gradually build up to make Gunmetal Blues an effective little study of loneliness and loss. These characters are caught in a perpetual morning after, and they deserve better than that.

The book, by Scott Wentworth, treads a fine balance between the comic and the compassionate, but it's from the songs by Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler that Gunmetal Blues draws its greatest emotional depth. The lyrics are intelligent and artful, and the melodies make real journeys through the minor-mode score instead of just trotting in place as they do in so many contemporary musicals.

Those songs are where the characters really bare their souls (and, if you're paying attention, unwittingly provide clues to the mysteries' solutions). They also give Gaslight veteran Betsy Kruse Craig a chance to prove that she can really act, not just perform. She plays all of the blondes, and each one is a different portrait of longing and heartbreak. She's especially moving in the bag lady's "Loose Change," and in Carol Indigo's "Blonde Song," a catalog of all the different kinds of trouble blondes can be.

Armen Dirtadian plays the damaged and cynical Sam with far more finesse and nuance than he's ever been allowed in his Gaslight characters, and Invisible Theatre can barely contain his huge voice at the climaxes. As a singer, Dirtadian kicks ass so much that they had to import extra ass to accommodate the kicking.

No less impressive is the work of Mike Padilla as Buddy Toupee and the other male characters. Padilla is a fine singer-actor, spending most of the evening accompanying himself and his colleagues at his lounge piano, but he's able to switch from one character to another with no more effort than it takes to change hats.

Director Gail Fitzhugh has found just the right tone for this show, light in the beginning and gradually darkening as Sam wades deeper into his case. The set and lighting design by James Blair and Susan Claassen work in perfect harmony to suggest multiple locales, even while the basic premises remain the Red Eye Lounge.

The recurring refrain in Gunmetal Blues is, "Don't know what I expected; got trouble here for sure." The trouble is all for a good artistic cause; I expected far less than what IT and Gunmetal Blues deliver with cleverness and sincerity.