A Fine Production of Sunset Boulevard

Liz Callaway
Thank you Pittsburgh CLO and Executive Producer Van Kaplan for feeding my hunger for guilty pleasure. It's rare to have the opportunity to see Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber (and Don Black and Christopher Hampton) musical version of the classic Billy Wilder film. The tale of the past-her-prime film actress who can't quite accept the fact that movies—and the world— have passed her by may rate high or low on your own scale of cheesiness and camp, but for me it strikes a nice balance. The story is juicy and creepy, and the score is lush and cinematic (thank you again, CLO—for the 22-piece orchestra to play it). If this production is not perfect, it's fine, a B- presentation of a show that could be just too big for the restraints of a 6-day run (maybe that's why the CLO has never produced it before). But I'm glad they gave it a shot this season, since the other entries locally produced this year (A Chorus Line, Annie, Fiddler on the Roof) are dependable crowd pleasers, but not challenging. I hope audiences take the opportunity to sample this little pleasure.

The plot follows silent film actress Norma Desmond's descent into madness (already in progress when we meet her, in 1949), as she desperately clings to jaded young screenwriter Joe Gillis—two self-absorbed and needy people who are hopelessly doomed. Norma is waited on by the devoted Max, who does everything to allow her to survive. Norma thinks Joe can help revive her career, not to mention her love life, and Joe sees helping her as a way to dodge the guys trying to repossess his car and to mark time until something else comes along career-wise. Max makes sure everything is in place, or at least appears to be, for Norma to have what she wants. The three form an unusual and delicate triangle. It's not a situation that can be sustained for long.

The principals here are cast with solid singers. Talented Broadway actress/singer Liz Callaway is a Norma-lite. She sings the role beautifully, strikes the poses, and gives "the look" but her Norma is not as desperate and mad as she should be. When costumed in the well-known flowing gowns and head-wrap, Callaway's face takes on an angular quality that evokes the severity of the look and attitude of Norma. But in later scenes, wigs and more "street clothing" outfits soften those edges, and her Norma fades a bit. A lot of this show is based on illusions and, served by a good actress and singer, I was able to buy into this Norma well enough. CMU grad (and original cast member of Sondheim on Sondheim on Broadway) Matthew Scott struts, broods and wisecracks his way into the role of Joe Gillis, but he, too, seems to be posing more than inhabiting the character. They both sing tremendously, which is a wonderful thing with this score, one of Webber's best, which includes contemporary theatre standards such as "With One Look," "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and the title song. Unfortunately, there's little spark between Scott's Joe and Amanda Rose as Betty Schaefer, fellow Hollywood writer, in a romantic side plot that works far better in the film.

The appearance of veteran stage actor Walter Charles as Max should not be missed. His rich baritone voice is perfectly pitched and resonant and, though he simply floats across the stage for most of the show, the songs and scene which reveal Max and Norma's deeper history are heartfelt and stirring, as we peek through Max's stoic facade. It's truly an honor to see Charles' performance.

J Branson's sets, provided by Music Theatre of Wichita, are stage-filling and serviceable, if not elegant, and scene changes are made very smoothly. There is a staircase, though it's not truly grand, but no car and only a hint of a swimming pool. Choreography by Barry Ivan is basic, performed satisfactorily by the young ensemble and supporting cast. Ivan also directs, and brings things together quite nicely.

That 22-piece orchestra, with Musical Director Tom Helm, is a real plus in this heavily underscored musical, even when the sing-songy recitative starts to wear.

Pittsburgh CLO's Sunset Boulevard, through July 29 at the Benedum Center. For schedule and ticketing, visit www.pittsburghclo.org/.

Photo: Matt Polk

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-- Ann Miner

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