BWW Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD: Alice Ripley Puts Her Stamp on Norma Desmond
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton, Based on the Billy Wilder film; Directed and Choreographed by Kevin P. Hill; Music Direction, Milton Granger; Scenic Design, Kyle Dixon; Broadway Costume Design, Anthony Powell; Additional Costume Design, Kelly Baker; Lighting Design, Jose Santiago; Sound Design, Alex Berg; Hair and Wig Design, Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Production Stage Manager, Natalie A. Lynch; Assistant Stage Manager, Dakotah Wiley Horan
CAST: Alice Ripley, Nicholas Rodriguez, Lizzie Klemperer, William Michals, Kevin Massey, Neal Mayer, Robert Saoud, Brittany Baratz, Kyle Braun, Michael Brennan, Ashley Chasteen, Bobby Conte, Christopher deProphetis, Andrew Giordano, Victoria Huston-Elem, Eleni Kontos, Jesse Michels, Melissa Shevae Mitchell, Alfie Parker, Jr., Ellen Peterson, Kelsey Schergen, Domenic Servidio, Cecilia Snow, Chris Stevens, Michael Yeshon, Janelle Yull
Performances through October 6 at North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Road, Beverly, MA; Box Office 978-232-7200 or www.nsmt.org
In the annals of musical theater, Norma Desmond is one of those larger than life characters, like Mame Dennis, Dolly Levi, and Eva Peron, who cries out for an actor with a specific and rare combination of skills to play the role. Tony Award-winner Alice Ripley ascends to playing the faded silent-screen star in the North Shore Music Theatre production of Sunset Boulevard, after originating the role of Betty Schaefer in the 1994 original Broadway cast which starred Glenn Close. In so doing, Ripley joins the pantheon of singular talents who have put their personal stamp on the musical iteration of Norma, stepping out of the shadow of the indelible mark Gloria Swanson made on celluloid in Billy Wilder's 1950 film.
Producing Artistic Director Kevin P. Hill serves as both director and choreographer, seamlessly maneuvering more than two dozen performers around the circular stage and its tangential aisles. He creates kinetic scenes at Paramount Studio and Schwab's Drugstore in Los Angeles that contrast starkly with the funereal atmosphere of Norma's fortress at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. Scenic designer Kyle Dixon and lighting designer Jose Santiago add to the lively effect of the action away from the house, while evoking a subdued, old world ambience for the residence with wrought iron railings, a plethora of ornate chandeliers, a pipe organ, and a multitude of framed portraits of the star encircling the arena.
Regular patrons of NSMT know that some set pieces and performers enter and exit through an elevator platform in the center of the stage. For this show, the pièce de résistance is using that depression as Norma's swimming pool that holds a dead body at the outset. It is no spoiler to reveal that the deceased is Joe Gillis (Nicholas Rodriguez), the hack Hollywood writer who moves in with Norma to help her work on a film script, and that he rises up to narrate the story in flashback fashion. The opening number ("Let's Have Lunch") is a whirlwind of activity with Hollywood types rushing to and fro, and lots of background and exposition happening in a short time. Key moments are Joe's meeting at the studio with the crass Sheldrake (well-captured by Robert Saoud) who can't give him any work, and the latter's bright and attractive young assistant, Betty Schaefer (the lovely Lizzie Klemperer).
After striking out in his attempts at getting an assignment or borrowing money to ward off the repo men on his trail, Joe leads them on a car chase which we see on black and white film on overhead screens (unfortunately, superimposed on Norma's portrait, marring the viewing quality), eventually secreting his vehicle in a garage on Sunset that happens to belong to the reclusive star. Norma's butler Max (astoundingly good William Michals) mistakes Joe for an undertaker summoned to deal with Norma's deceased pet monkey, and invites him in. After the initial confusion, when Norma learns that Joe is a screenwriter, she hires him, "invites" (read as demands) him to move into a room above the garage, and sets the rest of the story in motion.
Rather than going into further detail of the book, well-acted by the large ensemble, the emphasis ought to be on the score, a combination of lush musical themes fitting the melodrama, and lighter numbers that snap, crackle, and pop with the spirit and energy of the Hollywood hopefuls. Music Director Milton Granger leads a tight orchestra made up of a baker's dozen musicians. The principals do the majority of the singing, but a few featured players stand out when given a turn. Kevin Massey (Artie Green, Betty's boyfriend and Joe's old buddy), Neal Mayer (Cecil B. DeMille, Norma's old director), and Andrew Giordano (putting his own classy, distinct spin on Manfred, the fashionista) make you wish they had more to do.
However, there's little time to lament as the quartet of main characters have such great voices. Klemperer's lilting soprano is just right for the starry-eyed Betty, and she blends nicely with Rodriguez. He delivers his songs with pizzazz and a sardonic tone that defines Joe. Although their duets sound great, there's a lack of romantic chemistry between them, and the director doesn't do them any favors with the dull blocking on "Too Much in Love to Care" when they discover their feelings. Rodriguez fares much better when called upon to express anger and frustration, than he does in the love scenes.
Michals is nothing short of perfect as Max, both in his stoic demeanor, and with his thunderous, commanding voice that reverberates like a gut punch. There's not a false note in his performance, all the way through to the curtain call, and the devotion he shows to Madame is entirely genuine. For her part, Ripley's relationship with him on stage is a reflection of Norma's total trust and reliance on Max. They are seamless together, as if they share an unspoken language that no-one else knows. Like the silent film star she plays, Ripley says as much, if not more, with her eyes and facial expressions as with her words. In act one, she sets the bar high in "With One Look," but slays in "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in the second act when Norma sings about making her return to the silver screen. That one is worth the price of admission, folks.
The costume design (Anthony Powell, Broadway, with additional designs by Kelly Baker) elevates the production with the ornate garb worn by Norma, and the subtle use of black, white, and grey to suggest a cinematic connection. Rachel Padula-Shufelt's hair and wig designs successfully reflect the 1949-1950 time frame, but Norma's wigs are distracting. Speaking of distractions, remember the dead body in the pool at the top of the show? After he rises up and Rodriguez, the living Joe, picks up the narrative thread, the dead Joe (Domenic Servidio) slips away, but he reappears at intervals throughout the story. He doesn't have any lines, he doesn't sing, and he surely doesn't dance. He lurks in the shadows, skirting the perimeter, with a permanent scowl on his ashen face. I'm not sure of the intent of his presence, but it didn't work for me.
Coming full circle, it has also been twenty-five years since Ripley last appeared at NSMT (Johanna in Sweeney Todd), and it seems fitting that her return is in the role that she has been preparing to play for the last quarter century. She has the rare combination of vocal and acting chops to don Norma's caftans and turbans, and wear them well. Ripley gives a mesmerizing performance that transports us to mid-century Hollywood and into the strange world of Norma Desmond on Sunset Boulevard.