Let me put it simply. Musical Theatre West’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard is the theatrical event of the Summer Of 2013—bar none.
To begin with, unless you happen to have caught Sunset Boulevard at the Shubert back in its 1993 American premiere, or traveled to London or New York for its West End and Broadway debuts, or seen the National Tour in the mid-to-late-‘90s, then like this reviewer, the MTW production will likely be your first.
Then there are its two brilliant stars, Valerie Perri as Norma Desmond and David Burnham as Joe Gillis. (More about them later, but suffice it to say for now that performers don’t get any more stellar than these two bona fide musical theater stars.)
Next, there’s the music of Sir Andrew (easily my favorite Lloyd Webber score), with its soaring ballads and jazzy up-tempo numbers, and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s razor-sharp book, based on the Billy Wilder film noir classic (though in the case of Sunset Boulevard, the term “classic” seems an understatement).
Throw in an all-around sensational supporting cast, a scenic design (by J. Branson) that maintains the elegance of the original at a fraction of its outrageous cost, countless more-than-gorgeous costumes (by George T. Mitchell), and an orchestra that sounds simply symphonic under the baton of musical director extraordinaire David Lamoureux, and you’ve got a production that no musical theater lover will want to miss.
The year is 1949 and Paramount Studios is one of Hollywood’s biggest and most prolific film factories. It’s no wonder, then, that down-on-his-luck Hollywood screen writer Joe Gillis (Burnham filling William Holden’s shoes quite niftily) yearns to get his latest screenplay turned into a Paramount picture. Unfortunately, neither producer Sheldrake (Jeff Skowron) nor script reader Betty Schaefer (Ashley Fox Linton) show any interest in Joe’s latest, leaving him at the mercy of a pair of debt-collecting thugs out to repossess his jalopy, even if it means car-chasing after him through the streets of Tinseltown.
Spotting an empty garage at a decaying Hollywood mansion, Joe drives into its safe haven, only to be discovered by Max Von Mayerling (Norman Large), butler and chauffeur to legendary silent film goddess Norma Desmond (Perri stepping into the high heels of the immortal Gloria Swanson), whose career may have ended with the advent of talking pictures, but who remains the world’s greatest star—at least in her own mind.
Before long, Norma has Joe moved in above the garage, the better to help her edit Salome, the voluminous script she’s written for her comeback as a sixteen-year-old temptress (did I mention that the lady is delusional?) while at the same time sneaking off for late-night conferences with Betty, who’s helping Joe shape up his own original script despite the threat such close proximity places on her romantic relationship with Joe’s best friend Artie (Marc Ginsburg).
And then …
Though Sunset Boulevard’s Turner Classic Movie status makes it hard to believe that there’s anyone who doesn’t know its plot (from its quintessentially noir opening sequence to Norma’s “I’m ready for my close-up” final fade-out), I’ll leave it to first-timers to make further discoveries for themselves.
Suffice it to say that the Billy Wilder classic has made about as perfect a transition from celluloid to stage as any film or Broadway buff might have hoped, and with director Larry Raben operating at the peak of his talents, his two stars giving award-caliber performances, and the entire cast and creative team doing unsurpassed work as well, MTW’s Sunset Boulevard The Musical should be at the top of everyone’s must-see lists.
Though I must confess to being far from the world’s biggest Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, I give thumbs up to the songs he, Black, and Hampton have written for Sunset Boulevard. Two of them (“With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”) have become standards, but hearing them in the context for which they were written (Norma describing the magic of acting for the silent movie camera and later expressing her elation at a return to Paramount Studios) proves revelatory. Other gorgeous ballads include Norma’s “Surrender,” Max’s “Greatest Star Of All,” Joe and Betty’s “Girl Meets Boy” and “Too Much In Love To Care,” and Norma and Joe’s “New Ways To Dream” and “The Perfect Year.” Then there are the jazzy, up-tempo numbers, most dramatically Joe’s “Sunset Boulevard”, but also “Let’s Have Lunch,” “Every Movie’s A Circus,” “The Lady’s Paying,” and “Paramount Conversations,” featuring not only the ensemble’s topnotch vocals but considerably more choreography than the Broadway original, thanks to performer-choreographer par excellence John Todd.
I particularly like Black and Hampton’s book, which wisely sticks close to Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr.’s script, featuring more spoken dialog than most Lloyd Webber shows.
As for Norma and Joe, Musical Theatre West struck gold in securing the inestimable talents of Perri and Burnham.
Having originated the title role in the 2nd National Tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, Perri knows something about playing a superstar. As Norma Desmond, she is (in a word) perfection, from her impressive vocals to her tour-de-force recreation of a screen legend, one that pays homage to the Swanson original yet makes the role very much her own.
As Joe Gillis, it’s hard to imagine a more handsome, dashing, charismatic leading man than Burnham, returning to MTW after a decade that has seen him achieve Broadway and National Touring stardom. In addition to his first-rate acting, Burnham sings as effortlessly as most people speak, and as sublimely as any musical theater lover could wish for.
Large does some of his best work to date as Norma’s loyal butler Max, Linton is a thorough delight as Betty, and both are tops vocally. David Aldrete’s Cecil B. DeMille, Ginsburg’s Artie, and Skowron’s Sheldrake and Manfred are all finely rendered cameos.
Then there’s the sensational Sunset Boulevard ensemble, who not only provide bang-up vocal support, but bring to life one role after another, often wordlessly, but each one absolutely recognizable as a character and not simply a nameless face.
They are Lucas Coleman, Peyton Crim, Marisa Field (Beautician), Brad Fitzgerald (Finance Man, Guard), Chelsea Franko (Doctor), Karla Franko (Astrologer, Hedda Hopper), Juan Guillen, Caitlin Humphreys (Heather, Masseuse), Will Huse (Guard), Tom G. McMahon (Finance Man, Hog-Eye), Kirklyn Robinson (Analyst), Tia Robinson (Beautician), Trance Thompson, and dance captain Todd.
Black-and-white video sequences from the movie itself give us a car chase and a ride down 1949 Hollywood Boulevard to scene-setting perfection. Jean-Yves Tessier provides yet another of his Broadway-quality lighting designs, while sound designer Julie Ferrin once again insures a perfect mix of vocals and instrumentals.
Top marks go also to technical director Kevin Clowes, wig designer Anthony Gagliardi, costume coordinator Kate Poppen, and wardrobe supervisor Marisa Smith, and and to Melanie Cavaness and Gretchen Morales, whose properties are so good that an anachronistic cream-colored telephone and curly cord stand out like a sore thumb.
Kelly Marie Pate is stage manager and Mary Ritenhour production manager and assistant stage manager. Paul Garman is Musical Theatre West Executive Director/Producer.
Sunset Boulevard completes a Musical Theatre West season of four honest-to-goodness Broadway classics. Matching the best of them in all-around excellence, it has the added advantage of being a musical most of us have rarely if ever seen—placing MTW’s Sunset Boulevard high atop anyone’s must-see lists this summer.
Musical Theatre West, Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach.
July 13, 2013
Photos: Ken Jacques