Reston Community Players continues their 48th season with the musical version of Sunset Boulevard, directed by Mark Hidalgo. Despite a few weak areas, it’s definitely worth checking out. Highlights include an extraordinary black and white set, strong singing voices, an engaging ensemble, a richly textured score and (of course) strong source material. It will certainly appeal to fans of the original film, old Hollywood, Billy Wilder, Andrew Lloyd Webber and diva-based musicals. But will Sunset Boulevard – The Musical appeal to the general theatre-going audience? On balance, the answer is yes. Sunset Blvd. plays like gangbusters, and RCP once again shows that they are capable of mounting productions of professional level quality.
Steven Royal’s set is almost worth the price of admission alone. It’s a wonderful expressionistic take on this dark Hollywood world. His Paramount Studios set, suggested by a portion of their famous logo hovering effortlessly in the air above was inspired.
Sunset Blvd. is, of course, based on the classic 1950 film of the same name, co-written and directed by the great Billy Wilder. It is the story of Joe Gillis, a young out of work LA screenwriter who falls in with fifty-ish former movie actress Norma Desmond. Norma was a great star of the silent era, but she was forced into early retirement when talkies began. She hires Joe to help her rework her screenplay for her upcoming return (don’t call it a “comeback”) to the silver screen. Joe thinks he’s taking advantage of Norma, a self-involved diva whose haughty pride hides a deeply felt sadness (and perhaps serious mental instability). But in the end, it is Joe that is the real victim, slowly drawn into Norma’s web, and ultimately, his own doom.
With witty dialogue, a fascinating Hollywood setting, luscious film noir-ish black and white cinematography and a dark, satiric edge, Sunset Blvd. is an undisputed movie classic. Wilder’s films had real bite and a welcomed acknowledgment of life’s dark sides. It’s why his work resonates with modern-day audiences, while many of his contemporaries (cough… DeMille… cough…) are more forgotten. (Wilder gets a fun name check in one of the musical’s lyrics.)
Andrew Lloyd Webber, the famous composer of Cats and The Phantom of The Opera adapted Sunset Blvd. into a stage musical in 1993. (Lyrics and book were by Don Black and Christopher Hampton.) After playing London and Los Angeles, it opened on Broadway to mixed reviews (and several lawsuits) and ran for over two years. During its various runs, musical theatre prima donnas “of a certain age” lined up to play Norma, including Patti Lupone, Glenn Close and Elaine Paige. (Broadway insiders consider Betty Buckley the definitive Norma. Check her out on YouTube.)
Webber’s score is one of his best. Norma’s ballads beautifully evoke the woman’s deep sadness, weary dignity and fierce determination. The Hollywood movers and shakers get uptempo numbers infused with era-appropriate jazz and big band sounds. And underneath it all, the music has a wonderfully unsettling undercurrent of doom. This isn’t going to end well, it tells us.
When another 1950 classic show biz drama, All About Eve was adapted into a stage musical (Applause), significant changes were made to “modernize” it. But Billy Wilder fans will be pleased to know that Webber’s Sunset Boulevard stays faithful to the original film. Wilder’s satiric bite is preserved in Black and Hampton’s fine lyrics. Any changes to the overall story are actually enhancements. The musical gives more attention to Max the butler, exploring his psychology and motivations in greater detail. Additionally, Webber and his collaborators have chosen to make their Norma Desmond a far more alienated woman. In the film, Norma goes on shopping trips and has friends over to visit (including the legendary Buster Keaton!). By contrast, in the play, Norma never leaves home or has any visitors. Her visit to Paramount Studios may be the first time she has left her home in twenty years!
Reston Community Players’ Sunset Boulevard is a classy and respectful production. Director Mark Hidalgo has created a vivid and fully realized work. He keeps the pace up and has a great eye for specificity. One highlight is the scene where Joe leaves Norma’s New Years Eve party to join his young friends. The raucous fun of the young upstarts, all crammed into a tiny apartment downstage is nicely contrasted with the lonely Norma, upstage, wandering around her mansion, alone. And although Sunset Boulevard is not a heavy dance show, Hidalgo’s choreography was energetic and period appropriate.
Katie McManus plays Norma with brassy confidence and a strong belting voice. Anyone who has ever wondered what the late Ethel Merman might have been like playing Norma Desmond should check out McManus’ performance. McManus sells her two big numbers with true authority. Similarly, Joshua Redford sang exceedingly well. As the naïve Betty Schaefer, Katie Depp sang and acted with real energy and poise. Paul Tonden has a lovely voice and gave Max the butler an appropriately creepy quality. Michael Bagwell doesn’t much resemble the real Cecil B. DeMille, but he nevertheless located the man’s affection, compassion and fatherly pride for Norma. The whole cast sang well and performed with high energy. Supporting characters and chorus were consistently engaging.
Steven Royal’s set is almost worth the price of admission alone. It’s a wonderful expressionistic take on this dark Hollywood world. His Paramount Studios set, suggested by a portion of their famous logo hovering effortlessly in the air above was inspired. Two problems that frequently confound Sunset Boulevard stage productions are how to represent the car chase and the body in the pool. RCP’s solutions were very clever and creative. A projection used in the final scene was a nifty touch, referencing the story’s film-based milieu. Andrew Dorman’s lighting was similarly creative and effective.
Costumes by Jennifer Lambert and Mark Hidalgo were also exceptional. The emphasis of black, white and gray was appropriate in evoking the original film (and the world of old Hollywood). But Lambert and Hidalgo also used accent colors here and there to expand the visual palette and draw attention to key points.
During the performance reviewed (very early in the run), there were some microphone problems and occasionally, the orchestra and the singers were not entirely in sync. Presumably, these problems will be resolved in future performances. And then Reston Community Players’ Sunset Boulevard will be ready for its close up.
Running Time: Two and a half hours, including a 15 minute intermission.
Advisory: Half a dozen swear words. Sunset Blvd. is recommended for mature teens and up.
Sunset Boulevard plays through March 21st at the Reston Community Center,2310 Colts Neck Road, Reston, VA 20191. For tickets, click here.