Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, and director Eric Schaeffer have put a lot of thought and effort into their production of Sunset Boulevard. The production design is elegant and well thought out, the 20-piece(!) orchestra shows an easy comfort with the Andrew Lloyd Webber score, and the performers are more than capable. What this production does not have is a Norma Desmond who dominates the proceedings.
Like the Phantom, like Evita, Norma must control the action with her outsized emotions. Most important is the narcissism of an actress once the most famous in the world and now almost forgotten, of course, but there's also a complicated mixture of anger at the film industry (she would still be on top in Hollywood, she believes, had the studios not jumped to introduce talking pictures) and noblesse oblige toward her fans by attempting to return to the screen. Florence Lacey is a skilled musical actress who sings beautifully and succeeds in embodying the character's excessive pride and underlying vulnerabilitybut she lacks the larger-than-life quality that would make Norma more than part of an ensemble.
D.B. Bonds is boyish and a little bland as Joe Gillis, the underemployed screenwriter who stumbles into Norma's world and thinks he controls the situation, but he does have the necessary powerful voice. Similarly, Susan Derry is pleasant enough as Betty Schaefer, the aspiring writer who comes between Joe and Norma, but she never manifests the kind of drive that would make the character more than a diversion.
The most striking single performance is Ed Dixon as Max, Norma's servant and protector from the outside world. Hulking, taciturn, singing in a deep, almost sepulchral voice, he (more than Norma) personifies the darkness that underlies the star machine.
Daniel Conway's scenic design configures the intimate MAX Theatre with a three-sided thrust stage; he uses simple but evocative set pieces (floor tiles, wrought-iron screens, ceiling lights and chandeliers, corrugated doors for the soundstage scenes)and one major component, an ornate staircaseto bring all the scenes to life in a small area. (Where the 1995 Broadway production showed two New Year's Eve parties simultaneously by raising one set above the other, here the two scenes share space in a double-exposure effect.)
Howell Binkley's tightly focused lighting design plays with visibility, using follow spots and other effects to direct the viewer's eye. Matthew Gardiner has created black-and-white video to present scenes that would resist a realistic portrayal on stage (no room for a swimming pool). Kathleen Geldard has designed the costumes, ranging from Norma's elaborate outfits in luxurious fabrics (a green evening dress with a lizard-skin texture, a dressing gown embroidered with metallic flowers) to the more workaday dress of Joe's struggling friends at the studio.