Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: Musical Theatre West's Revival of Sunset Boulevard

Valerie Perri as Norma Desmond. Photos by Ken Jacques

Hollywood’s boulevard of broken dreams was immortalized in the 1950 black & white motion picture Sunset Boulevard, a film noir classic starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden considered by many to be one of the greatest films of the American cinema. It was later adapted for the stage featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book & lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton.

Glenn Close starred in the pre-Broadway tryout here in L.A. (1993-94) at the now defunct Shubert Theater before opening on Broadway and winning a Tony Award for her performance as Norma Desmond. The award was one of seven Tonys the musical took home in 1995, and also included Best Musical, Score, Book, Lighting Design, Scenic Design and Featured Actor (for George Hearn’s performance as Max), and sealed its place in musical theatre history.

Still, it is not often produced and Musical Theatre West’s revival is the first to be done here in Los Angeles in twenty years. This time it is Valerie Perri who takes on the role of faded silent film star Norma Desmond, a woman forgotten by a fickle public after the transition to talkies made her irrelevant. She lives in near isolation except for her memories and her butler & longtime companion Max (Norman Large), longing for a return (“comeback” is a word she cannot abide) to the pictures that made her famous.

David Burnham and Valerie Perri. The seduction begins.

When a down and out screenwriter named Joe Gillis (David Burnham), fleeing from men who would repossess the car he can no longer pay for, takes refuge on the grounds of Norma’s rundown estate, the worlds of stylized crime drama and musical theatre sensationalism begin a collision course to an all too familiar conclusion. In director Larry Raben’s version, B&W filmed sequences are interspersed within the scene structure to enhance the feel of the noir period piece. Clipped car chases, vintage images of young Hollywood, and imposing exteriors of Desmond’s mansion are an ominously surreal part of the production design.

Perri and Burnham do spectacular work with Lloyd Webber’s music handling the rich, sweeping melodic lines with ferocious determination. Burnham makes “Sunset Boulevard” the show stopping number it was intended to be, spitting out the foreshadowing of his own demise with increasing bitterness and filling the theater with thrilling high notes. Swoonable? Yes.

Perri’s performance vacillates between devastatingly poignant and over-the-top camp. Her return to DeMille’s studio at Paramount is nothing short of heartbreaking. She looks like a fragile young girl of 17 again sitting in the director’s chair when an electrician (Tom G. McMahon) from the old days recognizes her in delight. “Miss Desmond? It’s me Hog-eye. Let’s get a look at you,” he shouts from on top of the scaffolding and shines a blinding light on her.

Fearfully she stands and with trepidation begins to sing “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” The sad irony is almost too much to take in without blinking back tears and Perri nails every nuance of the brilliant lyric. In these kinds of moments she is divine, and yet the difficulty with Norma is that the actress must play an eccentric campy mega-star who verges on the edge of madness yet must not cross the line into camp herself. In this she is not always successful. Regardless, when she is, the effects are chilling.

Above left (top): David Burnham, Valerie Perri. Bottom left: Valerie Perri, Norman Large

Chilling, too, is
Norman Large’s performance as Max Von Mayerling. With dignified intensity he can walk across the stage – silently – and create more natural tension without words than any special effect can do artificially. When he does speak it is powerful, elegant, and full of authority. The legit singer’s passionate homage to Norma, “The Greatest Star of All,” is sublime, making it clear beyond the shadow of a doubt that, for him, she will never fade.

Jazzy interludes and dissonant chord progressions effectively add to the gritty drama within an otherwise lyrical score. The overture and second act entracte are absolutely terrific and the almost non-stop underscoring, tricky to pull off, is handled beautifully. Musical director David Lamoureux and his orchestra make the lush music so enticing that you’ll find yourself singing the haunting melodies all the way home, though technically the sound needed balancing at Sunday’s matinee (not his responsibility but the sound engineers).

Body microphones on the actors were noticeably inconsistent and the contrasting bright sound of the ensemble was a jarring presence. The women’s voices seemed pushed to an especially shrill tone, an effect that may not have been so obvious with a better sound mix. Also having difficulty were the follow spot operator and stage hands, who were unable to get the onstage panels to match up throughout the show.

Regardless, the musical packs a powerful punch with its devastating story of a Hollywood superstar lost in her silver heaven, and an unrequited love gone wrong. If the emotional state of Sunset Boulevard’s tragic characters doesn’t move you, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music certainly will.

David Burnham and Valerie Perri, the New Year's Eve party

Musical Theatre West
July 12 - 28, 2013
Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center

6200 East Atherton Street, Long Beach, CA 90815. 
Tickets: (562) 856-1999 x 4 or

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