Valerie Perri reprises her Scenie-winning Musical Theater Performance Of The Year as silent screen legend Norma Desmond in Moonlight Stage Production’s stunning revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, directed (and musically staged) to mesmerizing effect by Larry Raben.

Featuring some of Lloyd Webber’s most soaring ballads and jazziest up-tempo numbers, the West End-to-Broadway musical adaptation of the Billy Wilder screen classic (book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) takes us back to Hollywood circa 1949 where down-on-his-luck screen writer Joe Gillis (Robert J. Townsend) would like nothing better than to see his latest screenplay turned into a Paramount Pictures blockbuster.

Unfortunately, neither producer Sheldrake (Paul Morgavo) nor script reader Betty Schaefer (Katie Sapper) 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, whose career may have ended with the advent of talking pictures (much as did its originator Gloria Swanson’s, at least until Sunset Boulevard revived it), 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 (Shayne Mims).

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 film 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 could wish for, one which wisely sticks close to Wilder, Charles Brackett, and D.M. Marshman, Jr.’s script while allowing audiences to hear a couple of Barbra’s Greatest Hits (“With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”) in their original dramatic context.

Southland treasure Perri makes Norma indelibly her own creation, a woman who can drive you crazy one moment and break your heart the next, get you to believe it’s not just pity or self-interest that makes her Joe Gillis dreams come true, sing each and every Lloyd Webber ballad like rarely before, and command the Moonlight stage like nobody’s business.

As for the object of Norma’s obsession, who better to take over for William Holden than movie star handsome Townsend, magnetic as all get-out, and with a tenor to drive a woman crazy (as if Norma weren’t already bonkers enough).

Reprising his Scenie-winning featured turn, Large not only gives Norma’s loyal butler Max a stirring baritone but depth and heart, Sapper is soprano-next-door perfection as Betty, and velvet-voiced John George Campbell’s Cecil B. DeMille, Mims’s Artie, and Morgavo’s Sheldrake serve up terrifically rendered cameos as well.

 As for the Sunset Boulevard ensemble, even without spoken dialog, Scott Arnold (playwright John), Caitlyn Calfas (aspiring actress Mary), Maximilian DeLoach (sound technician Adam), Johnny Fletcher (Studio Guard and fashion guru Manfred), Lise Hafso (actress Katherine, DeMille’s personal assistant Heather), Luke Harvey Jacobs (aspiring director Myron), Ted Leib (Finance Man, Bar Man, guard Jones), Erica Marie (Hedy Lamarr), Missy Marion (movie chorine Dawn, Analyst), Jessica Mason (movie extra Jane), Jacob Narcy (contract player Sammy), Greg Nicholas (agent Morino, lighting technician Hawkeye), Kirklyn Robinson (screenwriter Joanna, Astrologer), Bethany Slomka (wardrobe and makeup woman Anita), Debra Wanger (Secretary, Waitress, Doctor, Journalist), E.Y. Washington (lighting technician Cliff), and Evan White (Finance Man, Contract Player, Victor Mature) bring to clearly delineated life one bit part after another including masseuses, beauticians, and the gayest gaggle of men’s clothing salesman the Paramount side of WeHo.

Scenic designer J. Branson’s Music Theatre Of Wichita sets maintain the elegance of the Broadway originals at a fraction of their outrageous cost, with David Engel’s black-and-white video sequences (from the movie itself) giving us a car chase and a ride down 1949 Hollywood Boulevard to scene-setting perfection.

Carlotta Malone, Roslyn Lehman, and Renetta Lloyd costume the cast in outfit after elegant outfit provided by The Theatre Company, with special snaps to Lloyd for Perri’s all-original gowns, and additional top marks to makeup designer Kathleen Kenna, wig designer Anthony Gagliardi, and properties coordinator Bonnie Durben.

Jean-Yves Tessier provides yet another of his Broadway-quality lighting designs, while sound designer Jim Zadai insures a terrific mix of vocals and instrumentals, with pitch-perfect musical direction by JD Dumas and the Moonlight orchestra under the expert baton of conductor Kenneth Gammie.

Stanley D. Cohen is stage manager and Eden Michel is assistant stage manager.

The ideal adult-oriented follow-up to last month’s record-breaking Disney The Little Mermaid, Sunset Boulevard is Moonlight Stage Productions at its spectacular best.

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Moonlight Amphitheatre, 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista.

–Steven Stanley
August 20, 2017
Photos: Ken Jacques Photography

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