Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD at Porchlight Music Theatre

Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD at Porchlight Music Theatre
With direction by Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre's production of Andrew Lloyd Weber's SUNSET BOULEVARD provides one wild ride of a musical evening. The musical's storyline itself vacillates between the predictable and the shockingly dark and twisted. It chronicles the story of former silent movie star Norma Desmond as she descends further and further into madness. Based upon the film of the same name, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's book paints a portrait of Norma as she continues to lose her grasp on reality (which was not all that firm to begin with) and as she plots an unrealistic comeback into the Hollywood spotlight. Hollis Resnik conveys all of Norma's mania and desperation in a star-worthy performance. Though Norma has long faded from the limelight by the time audiences meet her in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Resnik commands the stage with ease.

Of course, Norma's fading into the shadows is somewhat parallelled by the show's other core narrative thread: that of aspiring Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (Billy Rude). On the run from debt collectors, Joe stumbles upon Norma's expansive, secluded mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. By happenstance, Joe and Norma's lives intertwine when she solicits him to edit her rather lengthy silent film script, which she believes will enable her to make her Hollywood comeback. As time goes on, it becomes clear that Norma is looking for far more than just a professional relationship with Joe. But Joe himself seems both repulsed and drawn to Norma in many ways, too, further complicating the relationship..

The twisted nature of Joe and Norma's relationship becomes ever more bizarre, yet many of the musical's other plot elements are more predictable. Namely, Joe develops another working relationship with young studio assistant Betty Schaffer (Michelle Lauto). While Joe fully knows that Betty is engaged to his best friend, Artie (Joe Giovanetti), he shows little remorse about making his feelings for Betty known. Still, the unfolding of that particular plot point-and some of the other related storylines about young hopefuls trying to make their way in Hollywood-doesn't add much color to the story. It is, though, an interesting contrast with Norma's career demise to see so many young people hoping for their big breaks, moving in the opposite direction.

The production design is not overly elaborate but conveys the hustle and bustle of Hollywood with many touches of glamour. The design makes clever use of Anthony Churchill's projections to portray different backdrops and shifts in location. Jeffrey D. Kmiec's set is anchored in many ways by the opulent, golden staircase in Norma's mansion. It's an iconic symbol that represents both Norma's rise-for we know her success is what allowed her to purchase such a luxurious home-and her inevitable downfall, both career-wise and as she slips further away from sanity. Bill Morey's costume designs for Norma are also particularly apt, with flashy looks that demonstrate her desire to keep up her appearance and draw attention.

As Joe, Rude gives a performance that allows us to see why he finds Norma simultaneously alluring and appalling. But Rude's rendition on the whole tends towards the even-keeled. He's an amenable presence, but his acting choices don't quite stand up to the charisma that Resnik displays. His vocals are sufficient, though not superlative. While I found Rude's Joe to be somewhat likeable, I think he ultimately needed to decide if he wanted to lean more into the sympathetic side of his character or else steer the performance more towards the darker side (after all, Joe is far from a saint in this show). Michelle Lauto, always a delight to see in a Porchlight production, delivers as usual. She ensures that she doesn't play Betty too sweet and innocent and focuses in on the character's intelligence and ideals. Lauto's vocals are also crystalline, and all her songs are shining moments. Larry Adams is simultaneously stoic and empathetic as Norma's servant Max von Mayerling, displaying the unending devotion he has to Norma.

Above all, Hollis Resnik's Norma is what gives this SUNSET BOULEVARD its legs. Although Webber's score for SUNSET is not his most distinctive, the music is still filled with a number of his classic full-bodied musical motifs. It's no surprise that Resnik's rendition of the famous "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in the second act is one of the most significant moments in the production. The song itself is the most well-constructed and coherent number in the score. Norma finds herself once again on the Paramount lot and has visions of Hollywood's adoration flooding back to her. It's a magnificent character study, and Resnik mines all the layers in it. She nails it vocally, and she also finds a way to hover between her simultaneous elation at her return and the realization that she will never, in fact, really return to stardom. This characterizes Resnik's take on Norma on the whole, as she finds that balance between larger-than-life star and a deeply vulnerable, unstable woman who knows that her best years have passed her by.

Porchlight Music Theatre's SUNSET BOULEVARD runs through December 8 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $39-$66. Visit or call 773.777.9884.

Photo by Michael Courier

Review by Rachel Weinberg

From This Author - Rachel Weinberg

Chicago native Rachel Weinberg has been one of the most frequent contributing editors and critics for BroadwayWorld Chicago since joining the team in 2014. She is a marketing professional specialized... (read more about this author)

Interview: Peloton London Cycling Instructor Sam Yo on Bringing Broadway to the Bike
July 26, 2022

Peloton Studios London instructor and former West End performer Sam Yo has been bringing his unique energy and passion for musical theater to Peloton members since he joined the team as an instructor in 2019. For Peloton members familiar with Sam, it shouldn't come as a surprise that he was every bit as enthusiastic, genuine, and warm in this interview as he seems on the bike. On the heels of his special Andrew Lloyd Webber Peloton Broadway ride last week, I connected with Sam about inviting Peloton members back into the studio for the first time since 2020, some insider secrets on how he programs his Broadway rides, and how his background as an actor informs the immense presence he brings as an instructor.

Interview: Megan Masako Haley of THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA Pre-Broadway Tryout
July 21, 2022

Andy Sachs, Emily Charlton, and of course, the infamous Miranda Priestly from THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA are back following Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 novel and the cult-classic 2006 film...but this time, these iconic characters are taking to the stage in a brand-new musical with music from Elton John, lyrics from Shaina Taub, book by Kate Wetherhead, and direction from Anna Shapiro (who many Chicago audiences will know from her tenure at Steppenwolf Theatre Company). Megan Masako Haley takes on the role of Emily. I interviewed Megan early in the preview period for the show’s pre-Broadway Chicago tryout about her experience bringing the character to life and the creative process for this new musical.

Review: GET OUT ALIVE at Haven Chicago
July 14, 2022

What did our critic think of GET OUT ALIVE at Haven Chicago? Lynette is not afraid to share the vivid, traumatic details of her life with the audience, including her suicide attempt. While I don’t usually provide content warnings for any theater, the way Lynette recounts some of her past experiences is so raw and so detailed that it feels dangerous. I’m all for theater that presents audiences with the opportunity to become uncomfortable and ask questions, but Lynette pushes the limit. Ultimately, it’s clear that the process of writing and performing GET OUT ALIVE was an invigorating experience for Lynette.

Review: IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater
July 5, 2022

What did our critic think of IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE at Chicago Shakespeare Theater? Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE is campy musical theater fun that pays homage to the 1953 “B-movie” from which it’s adapted. In the vein of musicals like LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Blair and Kinosian lean into the source material’s ability to delight and amuse with a take-home message that’s clear as day—but the earnestness of the material is what allows it all to be delivered with a wink.

Review: WHERE WE BELONG at Goodman Theatre
June 28, 2022

What did our critic think of WHERE WE BELONG at Goodman Theatre? Madeline Sayet proves herself to be a powerful and magnetic storyteller in her one-woman play WHERE WE BELONG. Sayet has structured her text so the story becomes more personal and poetic as it progresses, and under the direction of Mei Ann Teo, she delivers her testimony to the audience in a compelling and dynamic manner.