BWW Reviews: Visit 'Sunset Blvd' at the Signature for a Wonderful Journey

By: Jan. 10, 2011
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I recall seeing this musical starring Glenn Close on Broadway in 1994. It's run lasted over two years and won the Tony for Best Musical. This is its Baltimore/Washington premiere. What the Signature Theatre accomplishes with Sunset Boulevard is to give you the impression that you are NOT in Shirlington, VA but you have been ensconced in a Broadway theater that holds only  276 seats but features an incredible 20 piece orchestra,(under the baton of Jon Kalbfleisch), a marvelous set (Daniel Conway) with the requisite long staircase (a la Gone with the Wind), great costumes (Kathleen Geldard), superb sound (Matt Rowe), exquisite lighting (Howard Binkley) a superb cast (led by the impressive Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond) that features a talented ensemble featuring Sandy Bainum, Madeline Botteri, Matt Conner, William Diggle, Rebecca Fale, Gia Mora, Jake Odmark, Kirsten Riegler, Stephen Gregory Smith, Sean Thompson, Matthew Wojtal and Kara Tamieka Watkins.

I am constantly amazed how the Signature is able to pull this off.

The musical is based on the film of the same name which starred William Holden and Gloria Swanson and was directed by in the incomparable Billy Wilder. The film was one of the top grossing films of 1950.

The story surrounds out-of-work Hollywood writer Joe Gillis (played beautifully by D.B. Bonds) who after getting a flat tire arrives unexpectedly at the mansion of former Hollywood legend Norma Desmond.  Desmond's pet monkey has just passed away, and Desmond and her German butler Max Von Maverling (Ed Dixon) believe Gillis is there for the funeral. Desmond, who has been working on a film script, finds out Gillis' true profession and seeks his assistance on her screenplay and hopes to star in the film to rejuvenate her long-forgotten career as a star.  Lacey milks this role beautifully She nails the two wonderful ballads "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye".

Gillis, like Desmond, has a screenplay in the works at Paramount Studios and has an ally in Betty Schaeffer (the adorable Susan Derry). Desmond becomes jealous when she realizes Gillis may have a relationship with Schaeffer.

After you present your ticket at the Signature Theatre, you will walk through a small vestibule which is filled with artifacts to make you feel like you a walking through the back lot at Paramount Studios in the '40s, a nice touch.

Director Schaeffer adds a nice touch concerning Desmond's return to the Paramount studios. She notices follow spot operator Hog-Eye (one of many roles by the talented Conner) high up in the rafters. He desires to bathe her once again in the spotlight, moves the light ever so slowly so that the audience feels the heat initially until the light finally hits Desmond. I thought it was the highlight of the evening.

It is well known that Webber is a genius at writing melodies and he repeats them over and over again throughout the evening. 

Stephen Sondheim, accused by some of NOT writing melodies, may have been alluding to Webber in his song "Opening Doors" from Merrily We Roll Along where a budding composer tells his partner who has written a new musical, "There's not a tune you can hum. There's not a tune you go bum-bum-bum-di-bum...Give me a melody!" (I highly recommend his new book "Finishing the Hat".)  One cannot stop humming Webber's beautiful melodies especially when he repeats them so often.

Another book to read is Patti LuPone's recent biography. She has two chapters on Sunset Boulevard and she does not mince words about how she was treated by Webber when she performed the World Premiere in London, was assured she would be playing the lead on Broadway and then Webber changed his mind. (I was told the book is getting much play backstage.)

 Sunset Boulevard runs through Feb. 13. For tickets, call 703-573-7328 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.

An interesting option is to buy a "Hollywood Pack". You receive a pair of tickets to a performance of your choice, a CD of the world premiere recording, a souvenir program, and an article of attire from the Signature gift shop for $182.

The theater is also offering a behind the scenes option called "On the Backlot" ( only on Saturdays and Sundays). You get a 45' exclusive backstage tour beginning at 5 p.m. for $10 . You'll get a bird's eye view of the design process

Artistic Director Eric Schaeffer unexpectedly lost his mother Letitia "Tish" Schaeffer in August, 2010. The theater has dedicated this production to her memory.

For comments, write to cgshubow@broadwayworld.com.

Photo Credit: Scott Suchman

ADDITION: See the film for free Monday, February 7 from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Shirlington Branch of the Arlington Public Library (located beneath the theatre). They'll even serve free popcorn!



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