theatergoers: Are You Ready for Your Closeup of Sunset Boulevard? You will never see a show of this caliber
in so intimate a setting or experience the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and book & lyrics of Don Black & Christopher
Hampton with such emotional impact and clarity as you will from the thrust stage of the 276-seat MAX Theatre at Signature
(to 2/13) in Arlington.
At the top of the billing is Florence Lacey playing a striking Norma
Desmond with a sonorous contralto voice, but the real "star" of the show emerges from the 20-piece orchestra, under
the musical direction of Jon Kalbfleisch. Whether delivering the overture or entr'acte, accompanying the
singers or the projected videos designed by Matthew Gardiner, or setting the mood - of which there is plenty - the music is
a constant and delightful presence.
Unless you've just returned to earth from a long sojourn,
you're familiar with Billy Wilder's 1950 film classic or caught up with the musical at some point as it wended its
way through our cultural landscape or the courts over the last 18 years. The plot is standard noir: there's
a dame and her henchman, a girl, a guy, and a gun. Guess who gets it?
Joe Gillis, played with aplomb by D.B. Bonds, is washed ashore at a tony but faded address inhabited by reclusive silent screen
star, a semi-comatose butler, and a dead chimp. She's got a prolix, six-volume script, which needs trimming, based
on Salomé. (Note to guys: when a woman is fixated on Salomé you had better look to your extremities, all
of them!). He's in search of money and/or a job. Flash to the studio where Samson and Delilah is
being shot by Cecil B. DeMille, his flunkies, a lot of extras, actor and writer wannabes, and an incipient real-life
love interest or two.
This Sunset being neo-noir, the color is
two-toned. Director Eric Schaeffer and his creative team have dialed up the mood for femme fatale Norma ensconced
in her mansion with her faithful servant Max, underscored with menace by Ed Dixon. But in the alternate world of the
studio and its underlings that the vacillating Joe straddles - where the innocent Betty hails, played with the girl-next-door
sweetness by Susan Derry - there's plenty of sunshine. There are also lots of pals, including Artie (the buoyant
Sean Thompson), Betty's intended and the ringleader. The jump-cuts between the scenes are a bit discordant,
though the transfers to Artie's gang helps Act I which is slow settling in. There are several lively scenes
in the show choreographed by Karma Camp and her talented ensemble which also play well with the audience. Chief among
these are Schwab's Drugstore ("Every Movie's a Circus") Joe's wardrobe change ("The Lady's
Paying"), Artie Green's Apartment ("This Time Next Year") and Norma's makeover ("A Little Suffering").
The splendid costumes of Kathleen Geldard enhance the production throughout, but especially those of the secondary characters
Wilder thought the musical venue best suited to Sunset was an opera, and
that is how it strikes you. With its more or less continuous orchestration, the score comes across as Wagnerian, with
the repetitive themes (leitmotifs) and cuing of characters by musical phrases (Max in particular). The story is moved
along in the sing-songy manner of a recitative. While the repetition is acceptable musically, the lyrics tend toward
redundancy at times: you may tire of "surrender," "dreams," and "always" after a while.
And the dialogue and plot will start to lose its snap: suffice it say that there's nothing new about "The Industry"
you will learn here. But, hey, this is a musical, whose greatest representatives (including, dare I say it, Sondheim)
feature rhymes and plots that seem contrived. So give in to the mood, music, and action which come at you at a high-stepping
pace, especially when the tempo goes Latin.
Ms. Lacey is a most satisfying Norma, comfortable
in her vocal range, capturing the pathos and psychopathology of her character's descending arc. She is by
turns imperious and vulnerable in her demeanor, every inch the diva in comportment and appearance (which Ms. Geldard's
costuming lovingly complements). Her renditions of "With One Look," "The Perfect Year" (with Mr.
Bonds), and "As if We Never Said Goodbye" are worthy of a concert hall. Her trusted servant Max turns out
to be the real surprise of the evening. Carrying himself as a no-neck monster, Mr. Dixon is a transformative presence
on stage, faithfully defending madam against all onslaughts in word and song, scaling 4-octaves in his devotion with a most
amazing voice ("The Greatest Star of All"). We'll find out the basis for his service later, which creates
an illusion for Norma right up to the end.
Ms. Derry is affecting as Betty and has a
great soprano voice - largely held in check due to the vagaries of the book - which is unleashed in a nice duet at the end
with Mr. Bonds ("Too Much in Love to Care"). As the show's narrative voice, Joe has to move a lot of freight
in the story and does what amounts to a lot of talking on pitch except for a few numbers, including one with Ms. Derry's
character, though he is dashing as the doomed heartthrob of the ladies.
J. Fred Shiffman and Harry A. Winter get into the act as the snide and caustic Sheldrake (he's a yes man who says no!)
and the autocratic and avuncular Cecil B. DeMille. Mr. Winter chooses the latter aspect of his personality to mine,
particularly in his touching solo to the fallen star, "Was that Really Norma Desmond?"
Schaeffer stages a number of impressive tableaus throughout, most strikingly the slo-mo/meet-and-greet session at Paramount
and the finale - big conceptions each, with all hands on deck. Both will linger in your memory. Theater fans will
delight in Daniel Conway's wide-open, imaginative set, with descending stairs, replica limo, and organ, which moves seamlessly
from scene to scene. It's largely gold-black at the Desmond residence, neutral at the studio, and pastels in the
underclass world. Howell Binkley's fabulous lighting drenches all those settings, as it does with the second level
backdrop, which houses the musicians. Matt Rowe marshals the vibrant orchestral sounds nicely and wrangles a few
special effects to depict the environment.
With 18 performers supported by 20 musicians and
a most impressive design, this Sunset Boulevard is a close-in holiday treat you won't want to miss. It
says in the press release that this is the first staging of the show in the area. I can guarantee you with these tough
economic times it'll be a long while before a production of this size passes through again. Check Signature's website for dates and times.
Additional cast: Sandy Bainum, Madeline Botteri, Matt Conner, William
Diggle, Rebecca Fale, Gia Mora, Jake Odmark, Kirsten Riegler, Stephen Gregory Smith, Kara-Tameika Watkins, and Matthew Wojtal.
Sound check: Superb, lyrics and dialogue clear; amplification appropriate for space; impedance matching
of audio system was excellent
Program notes: Very good, with introductory essay by Ann-Marie
Dittmann, breakdown of musicians, scene changes and playlist, and detailed cast/artistic team bios
meter: 4 hands, Highly recommended
Standout moment of the show: Act 2, Paramount
Studios, where the two worlds first meet, with a big recognition scene, capped by the Showstopper, "As if We Never Said
Stars of the play: 1) Jon Kalbfleisch & Orchestra, 2) Florence Lacey
as Norma Desmond, 3) Kathleen Geldard, Costume Designer
Runtime: About 2
hours and 20 minutes with an intermission
Photo credits: Chris Mueller
© John F. Glass December 24, 2010 - All rights reserved