It is a massive undertaking to mount this musical, which premiered in London in 1993 starring Patti Lupone, and later garnered seven 1995 Tony Awards on Broadway, including Best Actress in a Musical for Glenn Close, Best Musical, Best Score and Best Book. No stranger to massive undertakings at Ogunquit, Shaun Kerrison returns to direct Sunset Boulevard, having previously staged My Fair Lady and Les Miserables on these boards. With a cast of twenty-three performers and nearly as many scene changes, Kerrison oversees actors circulating and props and set pieces flying in and out with the deftness of an air traffic controller. In addition to the gaudy, ornate living room in the house on Sunset, Todd Edward Ivins creates an authentic sound stage for the scenes at Paramount Studios, complete with enormous hangar-like sliding doors, an evocative soda shop set for Schwab's Drugstore and judiciously employs projections for a handful of exterior scenes.
Effective as it is, the staging plays second fiddle to the stellar cast. Opposite Powers, Todd Gearhart embodies Joe Gillis, the down on his luck screenwriter who gets caught in Norma's clutches. He wears Joe's cynicism as comfortably as his rumpled clothes, and manages to maintain a hangdog expression even when he's enjoying himself. Gearhart is not Hollywood handsome (after all, Joe is only a writer), but he is enough of a hunk that audiences can find his attractiveness to both Norma and Betty Schaefer (Christina Decicco) credible. As the narrator of his own story, Gearhart also effortlessly shifts gears between showing and telling, and he smoothly sings the syncopated score with a voice that is strong except for the highest register.
Gillis unwittingly winds up at Norma's home after ditching a couple of repo goons in a car chase. She thinks he's come to dispose of her late, beloved chimp, but when she learns that he's a writer, she hands over the tome she's written about Salome with the hope of reviving her film career. One thing leads to another and Joe moves in over the garage with the assignment to prep her script for Cecil B. DeMille. After an evening out at Schwab's Drugstore with his buddy Artie Green (David Perlman) and Artie's fiancée Betty to discuss a writing project with her, Joe gets the house rules from Norma's butler Max (Sal Mistretta) upon his return. The quid pro quo is that he gets a place to live and all of his material needs met, while she expects love and devotion in return.
Once Joe realizes exactly what Norma has in mind for him (he's a little slow on the uptake), he bolts for a New Year's Eve party at Artie's with other young, hungry actors and writers (the talented members of the production's ensemble), only to race back when he learns that Norma has slit her wrists at the thought of living without him. He settles into life with her again, explaining in the title song that he understands the trade off. In the meantime, she gets a call from Paramount and prepares to meet with DeMille about her script and her return to the screen.
Act two, scene three may be just about the most perfect part of the show. Behind the wheel of Norma's vintage automobile, Max sits erect in his crisp chauffeur's uniform with Norma and Joe in the backseat. They roll up to the sound stage door where she alights from the vehicle and is greeted by DeMille (Mitch Greenberg). He escorts her onto the bustling set where she stops in her tracks to take it all in. Head held high, she is every inch the movie star in a shapely black suit and stylish hat, carrying a long, white fur wrap. As people begin to notice her, Norma is overcome with emotion and sings one of the show's signature songs, "As If We Never Said Goodbye." It is this moment that calls for the actress playing Norma to encapsulate her fear, her longing, her pride and her excitement about returning to her passionand Powers sells it convincingly.
Powers has several noteworthy big moments, but it is more important that she conveys the aura of Norma consistently in her carriage, her mannerisms and her tone of voice. Her vocal quality is perfect for the part which has many musical challenges and, at times, she even sounds like another NormaBetty Buckley. She rides the roller coaster of Norma's emotions, being alternately manic and despondent, and she is totally tragic and heartbreaking at the end.
Decicco is down-to-earth and appealing as Betty and boasts a lovely voice. She and Gearhart are well matched as they journey together from uncomfortable adversaries to collaborators to lovers. Mistretta is an audience favorite as Max, mixing devotion and stoicism with a booming voice. Artie and DeMille are sympathetic characters in the hands of Perlman and Greenberg, Stuart Zagnit supplies the rude, sleazy factor as Sheldrake and Andrew Giordano plays Manfred as a persnickety haberdasher. The rest of the "kids" play multiple roles seamlessly.
There are some interesting lighting effects, especially around Norma's swimming pool and on the back lot. Early on, at the performance attended, the sound was uneven with some apparent dead spots, but the issue resolved as the show progressed. Conductor/Musical Director Ken Clifton does wonders with a pit orchestra of only eight musicians, including him. Choreography is by Tom Kosis, but features more stage movement than dance.
Sunset Boulevard runs through August 14 at John Lane's Ogunquit Playhouse and will be followed by Monty Python's Spamalot August 18 through September 11 starring Charles Shaughnessy and Rachel York, and Chicago concludes the season September 15 through October 24 with Sally Struthers as Matron "Mama" Morton. Box Office 207-646-5511 or www.ogunquitplayhouse.org.
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton, Based on the Billy Wilder Film; Direction by Shaun Kerrison, Choreographer Tom Kosis, Musical Director/Conductor Ken Clifton, Production Stage Manager Michael T. Clarkston, Scenic & Co-Projection Designer Todd Edward Ivins, Costume Designer Anthony Powell, Wigs/Make-up Designer Emilia Martin, Lighting Designer Richard Latta, Film Sequences by Video Creations, Sound Designer Jeremy Oleksa
Cast: Stefanie Powers, Christina Decicco, Todd Gearhart, Sal Mistretta, Mitch Greenberg, David Perlman; Julie Cardia, Trey Gerrald, Andrew Giordano, Ian R. Gleason, Elaine Hayhurst, Leah Hofmann, Daniel Holmes, Chrissy Malon, Nadine Malouf, Gordon Maniskas, Happy McPartlin, Lindsay O'Neil, Dan Rosenbaum, Lauren Elaine Taylor, Alan M-L Wager, Cy Wood, Stuart Zagnit