Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

Sunset Boulevard
Drury Lane Theatre

Don Richard, Christine Sherrill and Will Ray
Written seven years after his mega-hit The Phantom of the Opera, it seems Andrew Lloyd Webber was hoping to return to gold by making another dark spectacle. Where Phantom had its falling chandelier, Sunset raised the mansion of faded movie diva Norma Desmond on hydraulic lifts to create a "split-screen" moment and reveal the set of a tiny Hollywood apartment underneath. Musicalizing Billy Wilder's famed 1950 film noir was a good idea, but making this intimate story of just four people a spectacle was a miscalculation, and the bloated production budget (along with some hefty payoffs to fired star Faye Dunaway and not-rehired star Patti LuPone) made it one of Broadway's biggest money-losers ever, in spite of a two and a half year run.

The team at Drury Lane, though, has smartly downsized Sunset Boulevard from its original oversized dimensions and proved it to be a much more solid piece than many might have believed. With stunning production design, director William Osetek and crew have recreated the murky 1940s feel of the film and focused our attention squarely on the characters—particularly on Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who becomes Desmond's kept boy. Christine Sherrill as Norma and Will Ray as Joe lead a vocally superb cast and, together with a lush-sounding 10-piece orchestra, music director Roberta Duchak gives Lloyd Webber's mixed bag of a score an outstanding reading.

Sherrill is a veteran of regional theatre and touring companies with the pipes to knock the show's signature tunes "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" right out of the park. Osetek made the choice to hold down the camp, and Sherrill's Norma comes off as a human character, albeit a deeply troubled one. This more conservative approach to the character allows for more focus on Joe, who for my money is who the show is really about. Joe's descent into the life of a gigolo, giving up his pride and independence for the comfort of Norma's wealth, having a developed a self-loathing that precludes him from pursuing a relationship with the sweet Betty Schaefer, is the tragedy here. As Joe, Will Roy has the baritone, stage presence and looks to deliver a character we invest in. We can't take our eyes off him and he nails every one of his big musical moments. Dara Cameron is just perfect as Betty—sweet, but with a certain cunning that makes her a natural for Hollywood intrigues. While Don Richard seems a little uncertain of whether to play Max as The Addams Family's Lurch or something more textured, he has the voice for his big numbers as well.

Scott Davis's set design amazingly packs a lot of 1940s elegance and ambiance on the Drury Lane's midsized stage. It uses a catwalk above throughout, with the outline of the famed HOLLYWOOD sign behind it, but positioned backwards as if to suggest the "backstage" look at the "real" Hollywood Sunset Boulevard provides. Elaborate set pieces roll on and off for the mansion, Schwab's Drugstore and studio offices that are all quite convincingly realistic. Theresa Ham has created glamorous and period-authentic costumes, including a variety of looks for film studio extras and the cast of Samson and Delilah. Osetek cleverly stages a look at Cecil B. DeMille's film, with ensemble members as Hedy Lamarr and a shirtless Victor Mature in the background when Norma visits Paramount Studios. The lighting design by Rita Pietraszek creates the necessary noirish feel and helps establish time and place effectively. Projections by Mike Tutaj include visuals of Joe's body in the pool, and scene descriptions "typed" as supertitles on the catwalk in a typewriter-ish Courier font. Tutaj also creates clever way to provide film sequences for the scenes where the audience travels by car by combining stills of the principals with stock black and white footage of Hollywood streets. And speaking of cars, the antique car wheeled on stage for Norma's visit to Paramount is gorgeous. Properties designer Nick Heggestad and wig/makeup designer Rick Jarvie deserve kudos as well for their contributions to this elaborate, yet intimate production. Finally, Ray Nardelli's sound design provides perfect balance between the orchestra and the vocals with outstanding clarity for the lyrics of this mostly sung-through show.

Don Black and Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the screenplay by Wilder, Charles Brackman and D. M. Marshman, Jr. is faithful to the source and works well as a musical, providing natural moments for songs to heighten the story's lofty emotions and tragic consequences. Lloyd Webber's score, though, missed an opportunity for greatness. In the title song and in some of the underscoring he effectively evokes the sort of classic 1940s film score feel that a Franz Waxman (composer of the Wilder film's score) or Max Steiner might have written. In other songs, "Let's Have Lunch" and "Every Movie's a Circus," he seems to be going for a jazzy post World War II sound that doesn't quite ring true. Still other songs and moments have an early 20th century European flavor that doesn't at all sound right for Los Angeles circa 1949. "The Lady's Paying," for one, has an almost Gilbert & Sullivan feel to it that is just wrong for this piece. Lloyd Webber is reputed to have drawn liberally from his trunk for some of the songs in Sunset Boulevard and that seems plausible. It's frustrating, because on listening to the parts of the score that do work; we see he could have written something more appropriate for the storytelling and more impressive musically. With Sunset Boulevard as arguably some of the best source material he's ever worked with, and with Hampton and Black's perfectly fine libretto, this could have been one of his crowning achievements, instead of being remembered for how much money it lost.

As it is, though, Sunset Boulevard is still a solid musical. In this production, given the gorgeous voices and inventive production design Drury Lane delivers, it's a most entertaining one as well.

Sunset Boulevard will play the Drury Lane Theatre through March 24, 2013. For ticket information, visit or call the box office at 800-530-0111.

Photo: Brett Beiner

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