Friday, September 24, 2010

Sunset Boulevard

Ann Crumb as Norma Desmond in the Arvada Center's production of 'Sunset Boulevard.'

Here's a review from last week of the Arvada Center's 'Sunset Boulevard.'

When we picked up the tickets and press kit on the way in, the publicist there gushed, 'It's Andrew Lloyd Webber's best show!'

I'm going to have to disagree. I gave it 3 1/2 stars, but only because in the context of what they were trying to do, it was as fine a show as it could be. There was tremendous singing, an amazing set piece (the old woman's mansion, which rolls on and off-stage) and nothing really wrong with the production itself--it's just extremely weak material, to me.

I dunno--are there any 'Sunset Boulevard' (the musical) fans out there? Is there anyone who can tell me what I'm missing, if this is such a great Lloyd-Webber show? Because all I really felt was a desire to pick up the original film--even though Ann Crumb was amazing as Norma Desmond.


It’s classic movie night at the theatre.

The clacking of a projector, the black and white Paramount logo projected onto a scrim, ominous music swelling dramatically--all these remind us early on that Hollywood is truly the lead in this show.

As if the title “Sunset Boulevard” weren’t enough to make that clear.

But it’s a cozy feeling as the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical begins, almost like settling in to watch a film from Hollywood’s golden era as narrator and protagonist Joe Gillis strides on stage to tell us a story about a man who always wanted a pool, the blue ripples now projected onto the scrim evoking the view from below the surface.

The unglamorous story of the Hollywood has-been was rarely told prior to the release of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film of the same name, with Gloria Swanson memorably playing the role of silent film star Norma Desmond. Picking up her story well into her decades-long downfall brought about by the advent of sound, Wilder showed the nastier side of the Hollywood game.

In the Arvada Center’s production of the musical, only the second time a regional theatre has been granted the rights in the past 14 years, the role of Desmond has been taken up by Broadway veteran Ann Crumb, who strikes a perfect balance between an overweening sense of drama and barely-concealed madness.

The book sticks closely to the original story, with aspiring writer Joe Gillis (Kevin Earley) stumbling upon Desmond’s crumbling mansion one night as he seeks to evade debt collectors. He is rather brusquely invited in by Desmond’s servant Max (Stephen Day) who thinks Joe is there to help with a grisly chore that foreshadows one of Michael Jackson’s peculiarities by nearly half a century.

When Desmond discovers Gillis is a writer, she decides to hire him to edit her script for a film about Salome, which would of course star herself as the 16-year-old seductress. Although her proposed project is of course ridiculous, Gillis realizes that he doesn’t really have any other prospects, despite the fiancée of a friend wanting him to flesh out a short story he wrote long ago.

Scenic designer Brian Mallgrave’s set is gorgeous, with a massive two-story piece representing Desmond’s manse, evoking a cluttered and gloomy sort of languishing Hollywood glamour, much like that in the original film. Three portraits of Desmond dominate the dark walls, overlooking a two-level black tile floor, an organ, a fainting couch and a grand staircase perfect for a diva’s entrance--and eventual exit.

The power of Crumb’s presence as Desmond cannot be overstated, and not only by way of her tremendous singing voice--she is riveting in every line she speaks as well. It’s as though audience members are wary party-goers keeping an eye on a particularly overdramatic drunk: what’s going to set her off next?

To know a diva is to love her as much as she loves herself--whether or not you want to--and Desmond portrays this all-consuming hunger and need perfectly.

As Gillis, Kevin Earley also exudes tremendous power, with a rich, majestic voice and a stage presence that counters that of Crumb with just enough strength. Stephen Day as Max is also a magnificent singer, and evokes vibrant shades of emotion in his songs, especially those he sings adoringly about Desmond.

The problem is that when we aren’t watching the slow-motion train wreck of Desmond’s life and career, the ensemble and their sub-plots seem disconnected and paper-thin by comparison. Although Lloyd-Webber has predictably given us bravura songs and a subject with a surfeit of pathos, his book writers never really got around to filling out the story satisfactorily.

The second act barrels along toward Crumb delivering that famous line from the film, but the show doesn’t seem to end so much as simply stop.

Problems with the material aside, director Rod A. Lansberry has created a dour and grim world evocative of the noir-ish look of the original film with some stunning performances that nearly obscure the thin façade upon which the show--and of course Hollywood itself--are built.

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