BWW Review: Eight O'Clock Theatre's Production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's SUNSET BOULEVARD Is a Technical Marvel
"We didn't need dialogue; we had faces." --Norma Desmond in the film version of SUNSET BOULEVARD
Some movies are so iconic, so much a part of the public consciousness, that they should never be made into a serious musical. All About Eve, the 1950 Bette Davis classic that spawned the tepid musical Applause, immediately comes to mind. So does Rocky; who thought we need a boxing musical based on the Sylvester Stallone Oscar-winner? Broadway's King Kong was a misbegotten monstrosity, as was the infamous head-scratching musical of Gone with the Wind. Who could forget the musical dud based on Breakfast at Tiffany's (apparently everybody) or the notorious Carrie (which has become a cult oddity of late)? It makes you wonder why misguided composers and lyricists didn't set songs to Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, or The Godfather. (Oh, Streetcar!, The Simpson's hilarious parody of A Streetcar Named Desire, perfectly holds a mirror up to the absurdity of this let's-turn-iconic-movies-into-musicals practice.)
Which brings me to SUNSET BOULEVARD, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. The Billy Wilder movie, about hack writer Joe Gillis entrapped by the scary Hollywood has-been Norma Desmond wanting to make her comeback (or, in her words, return) to the silver screen, had long been eyed for musical status. Even Gloria Swanson tried, as did Stephen Sondheim. But none of their efforts panned out. Andrew Lloyd Webber lucked into it, and his grand creation lasted 977 performances on Broadway.
But SUNSET BOULEVARD is rarely done these days. That's why I was so excited that Eight O'clock Theatre decided to tackle this behemoth. And make no mistake: This is one scrumptious-looking production. It's a technical marvel that is head and shoulders above any other community theatre in that department. Clever slides, set pieces, effective lighting, and most of the costumes all work together to try to tell this story on a grand scale.
But something is missing.
I think part of the problem is inherent in the musical itself. If you didn't know the original film, then you would have no idea why this is considered such a classic Hollywood story. There's a flatline sameness to some of the score; it has a couple of hits but many misses. For instance, a party song, "This Time Next Year," seems so drab and staid, that you wish for the bouncy kitsch of Promises, Promises' "Turkey Lurkey Time." "The Lady's Paying" and "A Little Suffering" both seem like variations of Evita's "Rainbow High"--the men dressing Joe and, later, the attendants coddling Norma. The score has two mighty memorable numbers, both sung with gusto by Norma: "With One Look" and (especially) "As If We Never Said Goodbye." These are some of Lloyd Webber's finest creations, up there with the likes of "Memory" or "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," but none of the other numbers are in the same universe when it comes to quality or lasting impact. With SUNSET BOULEVARD, you get the idea that Lloyd Webber had composed two of his best songs ever and decided to write a musical around them.
Paula Broadwater as Norma has a terrific singing voice that can move mountains. Her goosebump-inducing version of "As If We Never Said Goodbye" deservedly received a prolonged ovation afterwards. She is a force of nature, but you never get a sense of the lost Old Hollywood viper that is the iconic Norma Desmond--vulnerable but ready to strike at a moment's notice. Part of the reason for this is that perhaps the director (James Grenelle) tries to humanize her, and the crazed-eyes camp aspects of the role are hidden away. I believe this to be a mistake. Norma was a silent screen goddess gone mad--Mrs. Bates meets Baby Jane--but you never really sense this. She's an anachronism in a world that no longer needs her, and as a silent movie queen, her story must be told with facial expressions and overt hand gestures. She knows no real life. We get a glimpse of this at times, but not nearly enough. As the director wrote in his program note, "[Norma's] a dichotomy of characteristics--vulnerability followed by strength; utter joy followed by unwavering sadness; mania followed by eerier calm. I believe that Norma is not really crazy..." Having Norma played slightly sane is like having the Hunchback of Notre Dame without a hump or the Phantom of the Opera with no mask.
Michael Silvestri, who plays Joe Gillis (the part made famous by William Holden), is one of the finest performers in our area. In show after show, he has been the single standout, one of the main reasons to attend local theaters in the past few years. Here, his singing voice is exquisite, especially in the title tune that opens Act 2. And he gets quite a workout (he's in almost every scene). But I miss some of the darker underpinnings that Joe possesses, a con artist of sorts who must escape roughnecks who will do him bodily harm if he doesn't pay up money owed. Silvestri's Joe comes across rather stoic, and we never sense the he'll-do-anything-for-a-buck-including-being-a-gigolo aspect of the role. There are few sparks between Joe and Norma, even if Joe has to force the sparks to get what he wants. We miss the ick factor of the world's most famous cougar and her younger trapped prey. Part of the problem may be the role of Joe Gillis itself, which is both recessive and reactive. And if an actor of Silvestri's stature can't tackle it, then perhaps no one can.
Ron Zietz looks great as Norma's butler, Max Von Mayerling, but sometimes he seems to recede in the background, almost becoming part of the furniture (this may be by choice). But he gets his moment to shine when the truth comes out in "New Ways to Dream (Reprise)." Lisa Prieto is likable and quite talented as Betty, Joe's other girl of interest, but she seems rather bubbly rather than realistic and grounded; we miss the obvious contrast between her (reality) and Norma (lost in fantasy). Wil Toro is fine as Artie Green, and James Cass makes for a memorable Cecil B. DeMille.
The ensemble is simply outstanding. At times in the show, when they are locked in a frozen tableau (beautifully choreographed by director Grenelle), it is tremendously effective, each cast member focused and unmoving. Splendid stuff. And to top it off, they sound marvelous. Shouts out go to Greg Bowen, Brianna Burgess, Dave Davis, Melissa Ducheny, Coral Furtado, Mike Hugill, Samuel Hume, Melissa Labiak, Callaghan Mayer, Lyla Menkhaus, David O'Brien, Quint Paxton, Jonathon Pouliot, Alanna Reynolds, Ann Rhody, Griffin Spriggs,, and Katrina Young. A special mention to Gay Lora Grooms, who in a brief moment as an Astrologer, shows us some of the crazed campiness we seem to be missing from Ms. Desmond.
Although it's looked at as a Hollywood film, the original SUNSET BOULEVARD is really a horror movie. But in the musical, we never get a sense of that. Director Grenelle, who always is counted on to do incredible work with his productions, has mounted quite a monolith here. The pace works at times, but at others, it seems that the actors just stand around waiting for something to happen. They wait so often that you expect Vladimir and Estragon to join the cast sometime. (Call it Waiting for DeMille.)
As mentioned earlier, the technical aspects of the show are second to none. Set designer Tom Hansen and lighting designer Dalton Hamilton may be the stars of the production. The set is glorious, like pieces of a chess board moving in and out, from the Paramount Studio gates of New Hollywood to Norma's sordid Old Hollywood mansion. Hamilton's lighting is to die for, including the bright red of Norma's lair that is like a mad trip into hell. His projections are also amazing. I love how the slides ease from the scrim to the stage. As effective as the slides were, I could have done without the video of racing cars that unnecessarily walloped us not once, but twice.
Debbi Lastinger's period costumes are spot on and appropriate, although I wasn't a fan of Joe's wig. Austin Roberts' sound design also worked well.
This production of SUNSET BOULEVARD has the honor (or dishonor) of containing my award for Worst Prop of All Time. In the show, Norma mourns the loss of her beloved monkey; this should be treated like a member of her family, as if she lost her dog. In the movie, it's odd and grotesque. Not here. In this production, when Norma takes the sheet off the dead monkey, the prop was so horrifyingly wrong that it garnered unintentional laughter from the audience. A large-headed stuffed ape, like something from a carnival, was used. Here is a production with all of these soul-stirring sets and technical wizardry, a serious show, all undermined by a single prop. It would have been better either a) not to have seen the monkey at all by keeping the sheet over it, or b) to get a different prop.
I may not like the overall score to SUNSET BOULEVARD, but music director Willian Coleman and his orchestra hit a home run with the music. This is one glorious-sounding show, and the entire orchestra needs to be commended: Coleman, Latoya McCormick and Vincent Titara on keyboards; Brooke Stuart on drums; Dan Kalosky on bass; Colleen Chrien on the trombone; Joe Bonelli on trumpet; Kurt Klotz on horn; and Tony Fucco and Diana Belcher on reeds. Wow.
SUNSET BOULEVARD is seldom produced, and I urge you to get tickets to the Eight O'Clock Theatre production, to see if you agree with my assessment or not. No matter what, you will be entertained and certainly blown away by the technical side of this production. With EOT, sometimes we forget that they are a community theatre and that the actors are unpaid; in my estimation, they are the closest to a professional company that any local community theatre can get. See SUNSET BOULEVARD and you'll understand why.