Sunset Boulevard, the famous film turned musical sensation, places the Golden Age of cinema on the stage. This Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with lyrics and book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, adapts the film by Billy Wilder into a stirring operetta. This production in particular left me humming the dramatic themes on my way back to the train. Directed by Artistic Director Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre’s Sunset Boulevard features stunning design, an incredibly skilled cast, and a muddled narrative that loses the most memorable line from the film during the final moments of the musical.
The design team captures Golden Age glamor in every aspect. Jeff Kmiec’s versatile set plays with perspective and incorporates a few other old Hollywood tricks. Manual spotlights add a dramatic flair to Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting design, which also harkens back to this bygone era. Projection design by Anthony Churchill puts the silver screen on stage. Cinematography blends into the space and merges the two mediums living within Sunset Boulevard. Every piece of this production is carefully selected to emphasize the difference between the old and the new.
The world outside Norma Desmond’s archaic mansion is lively, bright, and modern. The ensemble of Hollywood dreamers bring that world to life with animated characterizations. The opening group number, “Let’s Have Lunch,” is a burst of chaotic energy that rushes the stage in a Hollywood frenzy. Each ensemble member is an individual cog in the moviemaking machine, and those individual roles are performed with worldbuilding specificity. From the PA to the backup dancers, everyone has their part — and watching it all come together is something magical. Shanna Vanderwerker’s choreography confines the chaos into energetic numbers; the Sunset Boulevard ensemble is a controlled explosion of wild energy and charming characters.
Billy Rude revels in the chaos as penniless screenwriter Joe Gillis. He carries the weight of the thriller genre, while still having a sense of humor when lightness is required. Porchlight paints Joe Gillis as a hero, and Rude certainly fits the bill. The manipulative and unfeeling screenwriter, however, is no hero. Michelle Lauto is a refreshing change of pace to the wild world as Betty Schaefer, who fits in those crazy group numbers without getting lost in the shuffle. Rude and Lauto each have a beautiful control of the musical’s difficult, operatic score.
Hollis Resnik is spellbinding as Norma Desmond. From the very first moment, it’s hard to look away. In Act 2 Norma Desmond visits the Paramount set, a spotlight frames her, and the audience is captured. Resnik’s song “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is enchanting and heartfelt. The chaos we’ve come to expect from the Hollywood set is transformed, almost frozen in time. In this moment we see the set through Desmond’s eyes; warm, comfortable, and home. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when Norma Desmond finally reaches her breaking point. Hollis Resnik takes extreme care with Norma’s separation from reality. In the musical’s haunting final moments, the music falls away and she is left clutching at herself, falling against the banister, desperately searching for something to bring her back to earth.
This ambitious production of Sunset Boulevard has all the pieces for a dazzling take on this disturbing musical. Execution, however, confuses the vision and the final product lacks polish.
Outside of the larger than life group numbers, there isn’t much clear direction of this undeniably talented cast. The stark difference between the world outside and Nora Desmond’s mansion is clear but jarring. There isn’t a similar structuring of the haunting stillness within the walls and those quiet moments are more wanting than chilling. There is no guidance between the energetic highs and the unexciting lows which means the most intimate moments fall flat.
Sunset Boulevard, at Porchlight Music Theatre, runs at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts until December 8th (extended).
Hollis Resnik: Norma Desmond
Billy Rude: Joe Gillis
Michelle Lauto: Betty Schaefer
Larry Adams: Max Von Meyerling
Joe Giovannetti: Artie Green
David Girolmo: Cecil B. DeMille
Anna Brockman: Ensemble
Marcellus Burt: Ensemble
Justin Cavazos: Ensemble
Laz Estrada: Ensemble
Brian Healy: Ensemble
Alex Jackson: Ensemble
Molly Kral: Ensemble
Mandy Modic: Ensemble
Michelle Owens: Ensemble
Shane Roberie: Ensemble
Danny Spagnuolo: Ensemble
Laura Sportiello: Ensemble
Ambria Sylvain: Ensemble
Aaron Benham, Piano/Conductor
Elena Spiegel, Violin 1
Celeste Park, Violin 2
Desiree Miller, Cello
Kedgrick Pullums, Reeds
Marcel Bonfim, Bass
Anthony Scandora, Percussion
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the film by Billy Wilder
Michael Weber, Director
Shanna Vanderwerker, Choreographer
Aaron Benham, Music Director
Kevin Barthel, Wig Design
Anthony Churchill, Projection Design
Maggie Fullilove-Nugent, Lighting Design
Robert Hornbostel, Sound Design
Jeff Kmiec, Set Design
Bill Morey, Costume Design
Michael Hendricks, Stage Manager
Jackie Robinson, Assistant Stage Manager
Hai Alvarez-Millard, Assistant Stage Manager
Charlene Walkanoff, Assistant Stage Manager
Samantha Treible, Wardrobe Supervisor
Jamie Davis, Audio Engineer
Bek Lambrecht, Technical Director
Catherine Allen, Production Manager
Alex Rhyan, Production and Operations Director.