Chicago Theater Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD (Drury Lane Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 3, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


From the start it seemed strange that anyone would make a musical out of a movie that embodies its medium so completely. Yes, the film All About Eve deserved to Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane Oak Brook (Chicago)become the musical Applause; both were obsessed with the theater. But Billy Wilder’s consummately cinematic 1950 masterpiece was a cautionary tale in black-and-white; it harked back to the silent screen as it both pilloried and glorified the same larger-than-life celluloid fantasies it embraced from every lavish camera angle.

Until Sunset Boulevard, his last big hit, Andrew Lloyd Webber wisely based his musicals on less distinctive scripts – T.S. Eliot’s comic verse, P.G. Wodehouse, children’s literature, an Argentine bad girl, the Bible. But Sunset Boulevard, a seven-time Tony-winner from 1994, is one of a kind. Drenched in film-noir angst, it’s sardonic with post-war cynicism in its depiction of 50-year-old Norma Desmond’s doomed “return” (she hates “comeback”) and Tinsel Town’s willful ignorance of its living legends.

Norma’s hysterical romance with Joe Gillis – a hack screenwriter who becomes a willing tool in Norma’s second coming – is the American dream gone bonkers. She Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane Oak Brook (Chicago)wants to turn back the clock; he strikes a Faustian bargain that brings its damnation. (It’s no accident that Norma’s supposedly triumphant return is to be as Salome; by the story’s end she indeed acts out that scenario.)

What it’s not is sentimental; Webber supplies that unwanted ingredient by grafting onto a hard-boiled tale of entrapment, corruption and retribution his aggressively endearing songs. Ironically, Norma’s desire to find “new ways to dream” founders on the simple fact that everything she offers is déjà vu of the worst persuasion.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane Oak Brook (Chicago)As is always the case with Broadway and West End spectaculars, the original show had a gimmick – a 20-ton, hydraulic-lifted recreation of Norma Desmond’s mausoleum-like mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. A grandiosity in twisted columns, Baroque organ, gold filigree and sepulchral curtains, it was the star of the original production, literally upstaging everyone.

Not so overwhelming but generous to a fault at Drury Lane Theatre are Scott Davis’ supple, slide-in sets which also depict a Hollywood sound stage and back lot, Schwab’s drugstore, the famous Paramount Studio gate, and even a view from the bottom of the fateful swimming pool. The most dynamic set creation comes when Norma’s funereal manse is below with a festive party thrown by Joe’s friends on the upper tier, sepulchrally contrasting her deadly, lonely fete. Live action and film sequences are also cleverly interwoven and each scene is introduced by a typed screenplay location. Norma’s gorgeous touring convertible limo – the cause of a comic misunderstanding – even makes a splendid cameo appearance.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane Oak Brook (Chicago)

Surrounding, if not sustaining, it all is Webber’s persistent score, easy but lush melodies that loop in relentless repetition, variations on a fertile theme. The good songs, none developed, stand out as much from their insistence as their inspiration, while the book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black soar only when they borrow from the film and sink as they try to explain what was clear enough from the camera.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane Oak Brook (Chicago)

Perfect as its pictures, William Osetek’s pulsating, well-targeted staging for Drury Lane Productions takes it all, as it must, deadly seriously. Christine Sherrill, the proverbial local girl made good, looks too young for her part and will never make us forget Gloria Swanson – or Glenn Close or Betty Buckley or Elaine Paige. But Sherrill, whose stand-out features would please any camera close-up, mugs up a storm (“We didn’t need words – we had faces”) and tears into her show-stopping “As If We Never Said Goodbye” as if no one sang it before.

Lawrence Bommer’s Stage and Cinema review of Sunset Boulevard at Drury Lane Oak Brook (Chicago)

Will Ray makes a handsome, adept Joe, his pessimism balanced against his youthful ambition. It’s a tricky role: By the end he’s thrown away all self-respect and almost courts the tabloid ending that begins the musical. As Norma’s ex-husband/director Max, Don Richard is magisterial in his dogged devotion and Dara Cameron radiates perfect perkiness as Joe’s more suitable sweetheart. Everything on this stage more than justifies this timely restoration.

photos by Brett Beiner

Sunset Boulevard
Drury Lane Theatre in Oak Brook
scheduled to end on March 24, 2013
for tickets call 630-530-0111 or visit

for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit

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