Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Review: 'Sunset Boulevard' Rises at DHT in Honolulu

(all photos: Brad Goda/Diamond Head Theatre)
‘Sunset Boulevard’ finally plays Honolulu, Hawaii in a community production at Diamond Head Theatre. The musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber is one of the best of the last twenty years and is among my favorites by the composer. I felt excited and at the same time had thoughts of trepidation with the prospect of seeing this production.

Like Lloyd Webber’s ‘The Phantom of the Opera,’ the popularity with ‘Sunset’ was tied to its opulent set design and costumes but more importantly to the actress starring in the lead role. After seeing a production at Washington DC’s Signature Theatre, I honestly felt this show beyond its original carnation could only be made with very mixed results.

‘Sunset Boulevard’ tells of aging silent movie star Norma Desmond who dreams of making a comeback in the world of pictures with sound, or in her words “a return,” to the big screen. Luckless writer Joe Gillis is pulled into Norma’s dark world where he is a kept man writing her screenplay.

Mary Gutzi (Norma Desmond) and Matthew Pennaz (Joe Gillis)
Mary Gutzi
The musical’s book is an adaptation by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, also the show’s lyricists, from the 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The black and white film classic was nominated for eleven Oscars and won three for screenplay, score and art direction. Faithful to the piece, Hampton and Black, retain portions of the memorable dialogue from the film (Norma: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”)

My worries of seeing a pale version of the musical were quickly cured. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at DHT is a production worthy of competing with presentations by professional theatre companies across the USA. Mary Gutzi (performing with the permission of Actors Equity) embodies the role of the aging star completely as if she stepped directly from playing the role on Broadway.

Her performance of the show’s big numbers of “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” remain showstoppers. Gutzi’s rich voice never hits a wrong note and shakes the rafters when called for. Norma Desmond has some of the best lines ever written for a role and though many of them humorous, Guzti never side steps the tragic underpinnings of the character.

Matthew Pennaz and Joy Bill (Betty Schaefer)
Matthew Pennaz and Mary Gutzi
As a larger than life character Norma Desmond may be, Gutzi dominates her scenes without stomping over the presence of the other actors especially that of her leading man Matthew Pennaz who stars as Joe. Many are unaware that the character of Gillis is rarely off stage and Pennaz is up to the task and gives a sturdy performance as he crosses worlds from the rich and dark one of Norma to the happy and struggling world of his Hollywood friends. He delivers strong vocals throughout the piece especially in the title number. He and Gutzi create stage magic from their first meeting in her mansion to the waltz-like “The Perfect Year.”

Strong supporting players do not disappoint either. Jody Bill as Betty Schafer is the young writer that falls in love with Gillis. She and Pennaz are enchanting together as evidenced in the song “Too Much In Love To Care.” Bill’s performance is ever more impressive when contrasted to her role as Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in last season’s “Avenue Q” at Manoa Valley Theatre.

Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s dutiful butler, is probably one of the more difficult roles to cast and play. Olivier Jodloman gives a unique performance of Max that is just a shade this side of Gomez Addams but not less substantial. He makes a dramatic impact with “The Greatest Star of All” and its reprise in the second act.

"This Time Next Year" feating the Ensemble.
Olivier Jodloman (Max Von Mayerling)
A large credit for the strong overall production is due to the well cast ensemble. Technical problems with the sound are often as issue at DHT when there is a large group of musical players. I don’t know if it’s a lack of microphones but there were issues here and there. Still the ensemble performed wonderfully with proper musical staging to control their traffic onstage. They are particularly delightful in the opening “Let’s Have Lunch” scenes as well as in “Every Movie’s A Circus” and “This Time Next Year” later in Act One. The women appear to have some fun with the humorous antics in “Eternal Youth Is Worth A Little Suffering”.

Technical aspects play a role in bringing this ‘Sunset’ to life. Costume designer Amy Schrag conjures up old Hollywood and brings gasps of wonder at each extravagant costume change for Norma. Credit is also given to Jess Aki for Gutzi’s transformation into Norma, wigs and makeup for the women and a lack of Justin Bieber hair among the men.

Many will sing praises of Norma’s opulent mansion complete with grand staircase that smoothly slides in and out of place during the course of the play. But set designer Willie Sable also makes excellent recreations of all of the sets from the Paramount Studio gates to a studio back lot. A drop cloth of palm trees really works on stage in this production. Equal credit goes to Stephen Clear for lighting design that brings proper shades to day and night scenes and adds that extra glamour for the mansion scenes no more so than in the segments that take place on New Year’s Eve.

"Eternal Youth Is Worth A Little Suffering" featuring the Ensemble.
Phillip Foster and Fredrico Biven
Director and choreographer John Rampage appears to have put his cast through a severe rehearsal period with equal demand on his designers to present a musical that really is one of best ever staged productions at DHT.

After the through-sung endeavors of ‘Phantom of the Opera’ and ‘Aspects of Love,' many critics were surprised by the inclusion of large portions of spoken dialogue in a Lloyd Webber musical, something that became prevailing touch in all his future musicals. But his score was still substantial capturing the feel of 1950s Hollywood for all the young hopefuls to the grand sweeping ballads for Norma.

From all appearances the show was a labor of love and the hard work invested by those on stage and behind the scenes is evidenced at every turn. A visit to ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at DHT is worth repeating. See it at least once.

'Sunset Boulevard' is presented at Diamond Head Theatre in Honolulu. Performances run from September 30, 2011 to October 16, 2011; 8pm Thursdays and Fridays, 3pm and 8pm Saturdays and 4pm Sundays. Tickets cost $12-$42. Visit diamondheadtheatre.com for tickets and information. Call 808-733-0274 or visit the theatre box office at 520 Makapuu Ave, Honolulu, HI 96816. (Review of 10/2/11 performance.) Post photos updated on 10/11/11.

Above and below: Mary Gutzi
"Let's Have Lunch" featuring the Ensemble.
Mary Gutzi and Gerald Altwies (Cecil B. DeMille)
Matthew Pennaz and Jody Bill
"The Lady's Paying" featuring the Ensemble.
Mary Gutzi
Jody Bill
Jody Bill and Matthew Pennaz
Mary Gutzi and Matthew Pennaz
"Every Movie's A Circus" featuring the Ensemble.
Mary Gutzi
Matthew Pennaz and Mary Guzti
Matthew Pennaz
Mary Gutzi


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