Los Angeles Theater Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD (Musical Theatre West in Long Beach)

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by Ella Martin on July 17, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles

MISGUIDED MELODRAMA

Billy Wilder’s 1950 film masterpiece Sunset Boulevard starred Gloria Swanson as the washed-up-actress-turned-cougar Norma Desmond, and William Holden as her prematurely-jaded-Hollywood-writer-turned-boy-toy Joe Gillis.  Using the camera as an instrument to capture performances of discomforting intensity, it wove a Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of “Sunset Boulevard” by Musical Theatre West at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beachpsychologically intricate tale of seduction, jealousy and betrayal set, of course, in Hollywood.  It skirted the artistic damnation of truly cheap melodrama thanks to Wilder’s sharp direction and script, Swanson and Holden’s blazing performances, and the Academy Award-winning Art Direction and Set Decoration by Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Samuel M. Comer and Ray Moyer.

The road to adaptation is often paved with good intentions, and such was certainly the case with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s 1993 musical that opened on the West End, starring Patti LuPone and Kevin Anderson.  The piece has polarized critics and audiences ever since, though it has enjoyed productions around the world, and even won the Tony for Best Musical in 1995 (its only competition was “Smokey Joe’s Café,” the revue which solidified the stature of ubiquitous jukebox musicals).

Directed by Larry Raben, Musical Theatre West’s production, crowning their 60th Anniversary season, features artists of unquestionable talent and experience, but Raben and his team do not succeed in creating a nuanced, believable environment, Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of “Sunset Boulevard” by Musical Theatre West at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beachultimately failing to avoid the pitfalls of this dangerously caricature-driven show.

As audiences file in, their eyes are entranced by painted palm tree images that pop out of a scrim that replicates a soft blue California sky.  The image may be obvious, but it is also dark, wistful, and mysterious.  It seems a promising indication of the work to follow; unfortunately, this indication is a false one.  From the moment David Lamoureux’s band begins to play (or rather, blare), Joe Gillis steps into an annoying pool of follow spot lighting, which seems to telegraph the Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of “Sunset Boulevard” by Musical Theatre West at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beachidea that this will be a murky story, and that the elements of this production simply may not have come together.  The next couple of hours confirm this to be the unfortunate truth.

David Burnham has moments of greatness as Joe Gillis, especially the dazzling Act II titular opener, a shatteringly fuming diatribe about Hollywood, but his Joe is really just a chump, played as a wide-stance Hollywood archetype instead of being an actual, interesting human being.  It’s a tricky role, and Burnham does not balance Joe’s youthful sweetness with his pessimism.

Valerie Perri’s Norma is similarly caricatured.  Where Swanson played the role with a slow but definite eroding dignity, Perri’s Norma is pretty far off the deep end from the start (perhaps some of this can be attributed to the musical’s conceit: Somehow, it seems more appropriate to say farewell to your dead monkey rather than sing farewell (“Surrender”) to your dead monkey). We never feel for the once great Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of “Sunset Boulevard” by Musical Theatre West at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beachwoman, now distressed and crushed by her own gloomy, irrational ego. Still, Perri is fabulous and sparkling when she soaks up the light in one of the few great songs in the show, “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”

Ashley Fox Linton’s Betty Schaefer, an attractive, studio script editor who suggests to Joe that they develop one of his previous projects, is relentlessly perky, and her high-octane energy and high-octave voice are both welcome, if at times frankly irritating.  Creating a pristine, full world unto himself is Norman Large’s Max Von Mayerling.  He plays Norma’s director-turned-husband-turned-butler with a brilliant combination of pathos and deep emotional reserve.  Jeff Skoron is wonderful as Manfred the tailor, and “The Lady’s Paying” (“Welcome to Your Shop-A-Thon!”) is an absolute treat.  Why this number succeeded where so many others fell flat is obvious — it was built on energetic, sincere performances.

Webber’s persistent score has easy but lush melodies that loop in relentless repetition; they are variations on a fertile theme. The few good songs, none truly developed, stand out more from their insistence than their inspiration. The book Ella Martin’s Stage and Cinema review of “Sunset Boulevard” by Musical Theatre West at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beachand lyrics by Hampton and Black soar only when they borrow from the film and sink as they try to explain what was clear enough from the camera.

Technical Designer Kevin Clowes adds a smart split-screen effect at the end of Act One, where we see Norma and Max’s New Year’s Eve devolve just as Joe and Betty’s is beginning with a lively chorus. But the faults in the libretto – grossly underwritten female characters and nearly underwritten male ones – are only highlighted in this misguided production which needed to take the schizophrenic material deadly serious, but does not.  The deleterious technical effects and staging are not worth the analysis.  All are symptomatic of the greater problem: This is a messy, out-of-focus musical that struggles to succeed in its own right and even secondarily as an homage to the far-better film.  Some issues are production-specific, but on the whole, it’s as much a problem with the chosen material as it is the execution.

photos by Ken Jacques

Sunset Boulevard
Musical Theatre West
Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach
scheduled to end on July 28, 2013
for tickets, call (562) 856-1999 or visit http://www.musical.org

{ 2 comments }

JM July 22, 2013 at 12:55 pm

I enjoyed SB @ MTW, especially seeing Mr. Burnham in an uncompromising, unsympathetic role. In LA we have seen him as Joseph and Fabrizio, so it was great to see him step out as leading man. In recalling the movie, I do not remember Holden having much youthful sweetness about him. IMHO, I do not believe the role is written with much of that. At any rate, I quite liked his performance and Ms. Perri’s as well.

Sharon J July 22, 2013 at 11:04 pm

I did not enjoy this production, but I did very much enjoy David Burnham as Joe Gillis, and found his performance quite interesting, indeed. I am a fan of the film, and agree with the previous comment that “youthful sweetness” would be out of order. I’m happy to have a new leading man in L.A.! He was wonderful. His performance was what I enjoyed about this production, and am anxious to see what he does next.

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