Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review: 'Sunset Boulevard' Rises at Signature

Signature Theatre is taking the dare and staging another mega musical on their intimate stage. Two years ago the theatre found success with ‘Les Miserables’ and its possible that history will repeat itself with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

Based on the 1951 Billy Wilder directed film classic, the show is about faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond (Florence Lacey) now a recluse clinging to memories and dreams of a comeback. When Joe Gillis (D.B. Bonds), a down on his luck screenwriter stumbles upon her mansion, they both find opportunity in their chance meeting. Always along Norma’s side is her faithful butler Max (Ed Dixon) who has secrets of his own. Joe eventually falls in love with budding writer Betty Schaeffer (Susan Derry) and finds he cannot escape from the clutches of Norma’s dark world and its material temptations.

Lacey’s features may be too soft to convey the brilliance of a silent career, but she captures the fragile desperation of Norma and is on the verge of finding the insanity that the role demands. When it counts she sings magnificently. Her performance of the comeback anthem “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is intense and she rips the heart out of “With One Look.”

Bonds has the task of bridging Norma’s has-been world with the joy of the Hollywood hopefuls. At this performance after opening night, he appeared tentative as Joe. Perhaps a bit too boyish looking, he does manage to convey the cynicism in the title song and both he and Lacey work magic when they sing “The Perfect Year.”

Dixon continues the succession of actors to embody the deadly serious authority of Max. Derry conveys the innocence of Betty and scores in the romantic duet with Bonds in “Too Much In Love to Care.”

“Let’s Have Lunch”, “The Lady’s Paying” and “Every Movie’s a Circus” are three ensemble numbers that bring excitement and movement. Choreography by Karma Camp makes appropriate use of the limited stage space.

The book writers and lyricists, Don Black and Christopher Hampton, respect the original movie source and allow Lloyd Webber to hijack the dramatic moments for the best musical numbers. The score remains rich, lush and melodic thanks to the Broadway sound of the 20-piece orchestra.

Inevitably the production will be compared to the 20-ton gorilla that was Norma’s massive Hollywood palazzo and giant staircase on Broadway. Instead scenic designer Daniel Conway turns the auditorium into a back lot studio complete with ropes and catwalks hovering above. The stage echoes the original with plush baroque accents around a tiled thrust stage. The orchestra is placed on a balcony obscured by a Mediterranean-like grillwork.

There is nothing wrong with the look of the modest staircase that Norma climbs throughout the evening except in its revelation. This motion gives the impression of those stairs pulled from a ceiling to enter an attic. But the replica of the antique limousine succeeds in making an appearance to strut the length of the stage. The costumes by Kathleen Geldard remain as sumptuous as on Broadway from the ‘50s look of the young hopefuls to Norma’s gowns

One scene that works fluidly is the chase sequence that sets the plot in motion via a black and white film projected above the stage. This almost makes up for Joe’s final scene which is handled rather clumsily.

In the end the proceedings lead to a shattering reality and a road littered with broken dreams. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at its core is a true dramatic musical. Even without a marquee name, the show stands on its own as a dynamic story with wonderful music. In this paired down production the result is still touching and haunting.

(All images: signature theatre)

  • What: Signature Theatre presents Sunset Boulevard
  • Where: Signature Max Theatre, Washington, DC
  • When: Tue-Wed 7:30pm; Thu-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 2pm & 7pm
  • Running Time: 2 hours 30 min
  • Ticket Prices: $59- $85
  • Opening: Dec 10, 2010 (previews from Dec 7, 2010)
  • Closing: Feb 13, 2011
  • Website:
  • Click 'Read more' below for more production photographs.


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