BWW Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD Makes Regional Premiere at Vista
1993's rarely produced Sunset Boulevard is a somewhat flawed musical play that satisfies best with the casting of an actress of great star quality as Norma Desmond, one whose face could have convincingly lit up a silent film screen. Moonlight Amphitheatre has its star in Valerie Perri, and under Larry Raben's resourcefully skilled staging, Sunset Boulevard is a hit.
For those unfamiliar with Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden, and from the gasps at the gunshots on opening night, I gather there are still some who are not, Joe Gillis (Robert J. Townsend), a down.on.his.luck screenwriter whose car is in the process of being repossessed, comes unexpectedly into iconic silent film star Norma Desmond's life. She coaxes him to read her overbearing and sugary screenplay of Salome, with the hope that it will take her back to Paramount and Cecil B. DeMille (John George Campbell), who had directed many of her early films since her breakthrough at age 17. This is 1950, and devoted.to.a.fault servant Max (Norman Large) attends to Norma and has somehow managed to convince her that she still receives 10,000 fan letters a week. Delusional, Desmond, who has attempted suicide on several occasions, proceeds to fall head over heels in unrequited love with Gillis, who in turn becomes smitten with friend Artie Green's (Shayne Mims) girlfriend Betty Schaefer (Katie Sapper), who is helping him beef up an old story idea into a full-fledged script. Gillis, usually independent and smart, has allowed himself to be kept by Desmond solely because of his previous misfortunes. When he finally sees the light, alas, it is too late to turn back or to go forward in a happy relationship with Betty, who, in spite of her engagement to Artie, has also fallen head over heels in love with him.
It's a sad and tragic story for all concerned. Yet there are joyous moments, mostly provided by Desmond's childlike fancies, doting behavior and overabundance of star power that was Hollywood in its heyday. As much interest as Norma brings to the story, however, her part in it may also be responsible for the musical's lack of richness as a well-rounded romantic story, as little time is explored in the Betty/Joe affair nor is there a very specific and juicy expose of Norma's past marriages. Somehow the film's screenplay was able to capture riveting details that the stage musical sorely does not. Missing also are the poker playing scene with Norma's old cronies and her little song and dance impression of Charlie Chaplin.
But... there is the melodrama, and the magic of Norma Desmond and the actress who plays her. Here it's Valerie Perri's turn and, from her very first entrance, she captivates our attention. Tiny, but statuesque with a stunning angular face, she makes use of that expressive face and lovely hands to convey every word, every feeling, every hope, every dream. ("I am big; it's the pictures that got small.") Like a hopeless little girl used to getting what she wants, Desmond manipulates Gillis and more importantly her audience. It's a grande seduction and Perri carries it off magnificently...with the voice of an angel. Townsend is just right as Gillis, lending boyish good looks and a laid.back personality. He masks his unhappiness in an attempt to care for Norma, the only Hollywood figure who has been good to him. It's ironic, but both Norma and Joe are tragic people with big hearts. When the heart is too big, it may prevent one from coming up a winner. Large as Max is perfectly cast. Another sterling singer, he turns a servant into a prince. Sapper is pretty, down.to.earth, the girl next door as Betty. Campbell makes a human being out of DeMille.
Raben has added fine touches as director. Kenneth Gammie conducts the orchestra, bringing welcomed expertise. J. Branson's set of Norma's manse is scaled down but still giving off the appropriately elaborate opulence it deserves, and Renetta Lloyd's costumes for Norma are gorgeous. Praise as well to David Engel for his fine projection design with film montages that move the story forward in the beginning.
After seeing Perri perform this role in 2013 in Long Beach, I can only say that she has grown lovingly into it, making Norma totally her own memorable creation.
Don Black and Christopher Hampton's script may have a few weaknesses and Andrew Lloyd Webber's music is certainly not up to his Phantom, but "With One Look", "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and "The Perfect Year" are without a doubt chillingly satisfying. We theatre fans keep returning to the production, so it does exercise its appeal over us. Overall, Moonlight's production is, to coin an ironic phrase, a lovely replica of Hollywood cynicism and degradation, with surefire direction and star worthy performances.
(photo credit: Ken Jacques Photography/Adriana Zuniga Photography)