Review: ‘Sunset Boulevard’

Michelle Lauto (left) as Betty Schaefer and Billy Rude as Joe Gillis in “Sunset Boulevard.”    (Photo by Michael Courier)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Porchlight Music
Theatre at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Dec. 8
Tickets: $39-$66
Phone: 773-777-9884

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I’ve been looking forward to Porchlight Music Theatre’s “Sunset Boulevard” ever since casting was announced for the company’s 25th anniversary season opener months ago.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, based on the classic 1950 film by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, is far from a personal favorite, but the chance to see Hollis Resnik, one of the city’s finest actors, play Norma Desmond was very exciting.

Happily, Resnik’s performance as the aging silent-film star cast aside by Hollywood and desperate to return exceeds expectations. She brings real humanity and vulnerability to the role made famous by an over-the-top Gloria Swanson in the movie (and played on stage by the likes of Patti LuPone and Glenn Close) as the lonely diva, driven by unrealistic desires and determined to get what she wants, descends from delusion into madness when thwarted. Her dramatic swings from deep depression to delirious elation occasionally teeter on the edge of self-awareness, and her emotions come through loud and clear in her big solos, among them “Surrender,” “With One Look,” “New Ways to Dream,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”

Norma’s scenario for a comeback (though she hates that word) revolves around an unwieldy screenplay she’s written for “Salome.” She hopes to get Cecil B. DeMille to make the film with her in the title role.

Her plan takes shape when Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck Hollywood writer, pulls into the garage of her decaying mansion on the fabled Sunset Boulevard in an effort to elude the men trying to repossess his car. Greeted by Norma’s servant Max, who at first thinks he’s come from the funeral parlor for her dead chimp, Joe is lured into staying, and before he knows it, Max has moved him and his belongings into the apartment over the garage, and he has agreed to help rewrite Norma’s script, to the detriment of a screenplay of his own he’s working on.

As the needy Norma ensnares Joe into an affair and he’s moved into the main house, his self-loathing at  being a kept man increases along with his seduction by the attendant creature comforts. At the same time, he’s challenged by a bright young woman back at the studio named Betty Schaefer who wants to help him with his own work, and they fall in love, even though she’s engaged to his best friend.

Things do not go well, as we all know at the outset, because the story is told as a flashback by Joe, who’s been shot dead and found in Norma’s swimming pool. This opening is rather murky in Porchlight’s production, but the show is commendable in other ways besides Resnik’s star turn—and seriously flawed in one or two.

Larry Adams is a huge asset as Max, who we learn is actually Max von Mayerling, Norma’s early director, first husband, and most devoted protector—and enabler. With his stunning baritone and dignified presence, he makes the self-styled servant’s unstinting loyalty and impassioned “The Greatest Star of All” moving, and when he reveals to Joe that the notes Norma got from the studio were not about her but about her exotic car, we can feel his pain.

In many ways, the role of Joe Gillis is the most difficult—he’s on stage almost the entire time—and those who are used to William Holden in the film may be disappointed by Billy Rude here. He’s younger, more fresh-faced, and less world-weary, highlighting the age difference between him and Norma more acutely and making his relationship with Betty more age appropriate. At the same time, he achieves a good balance between a believable affection for Norma (if only because she’s been so generous toward him) and his growing disgust at his inability to escape. He’s a cad and not very sympathetic, but he does have redeeming qualities, which is probably as it should be. He also has a fine singing voice, evident in the solo title song and duets with Norma and Betty.

Michelle Lauto rounds out the main quartet with a strong soprano as Betty, who falls hard enough for Joe that she doesn’t seem to have much trouble ditching her boyfriend Artie Green (Joe Giovannetti). Of the supporting players, David Girolmo stands out as an extremely kind Cecil B. DeMille, who’s so gentle with Norma she doesn’t realize he’s brushing her off. Not credited as the younger Norma portraying Salome is Mandy Modic, who replaces her older counterpart in one lovely dance with Joe that suggests what might have been.

Shanna Vanderwerker’s choreography and Michael Weber’s direction have other inspired moments, as do Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s scenic design and Anthony Churchill’s projection design, which includes a few clips from the film. They can’t recreate the monumental mansion set of the Broadway production, of course, but the intimate focus on key ingredients like Norma’s gilded staircase, the Paramount Studio gates, and posters of Norma’s past glories mostly works, with the help of Maggie Fullilove-Nugent’s lighting and Bill Morey’s mostly convincing period costumes.

The one big drawback, at least where I was sitting (in the front row) is the sound. It’s hard to know whether to blame music director Aaron Benham, the small orchestra, Robert Hornbostel’s sound design, or all three. At times, the musicians seemed to race ahead of the singers, and frequently the music drowned out the vocals, rendering the lyrics unintelligible. Dead spots added to the aural mess. Porchlight really needs to fix this problem, but otherwise “Sunset Boulevard” definitely is worth seeing.