The Kennedy Center’s Broadway Center Stage series has produced another pearl with their current production of “Sunset Boulevard.” Based on the 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden (and the subject of a classic “The Carol Burnett Show” skit), the musical won numerous Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Original Score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Best Book of a Musical by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Both the 1994 Broadway production and 2017 revival starred Glenn Close (who won a Tony) playing the role of the forgotten and emotionally fragile silent film star, Norma Desmond. She has withdrawn from the world in her run-down mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Her only companion is her loyal butler/chauffer, Max von Mayerling (also her first husband and director in the silent era).
…a must-see for its creative artistry and Block’s performance…
The story begins at the end, with a murder involving an old movie star, then flashes forward to the beginning. It is 1949 and the Paramount lot is full of young, aspiring writers, actors, and directors. Among them is a handsome, down-on-his-luck writer, Joe Gillis, who is out of money and desperate for work. His latest project is rejected and his agent dumps him, but a young script editor, Betty Schaefer, sees potential in one of his earlier screenplays and suggests they collaborate. The conversation is abruptly cut short as Joe escapes two repossession agents after his car.
In a clever chase scene with unseen actors holding lights that resemble two sets of car headlights, Joe finds refuge in the garage on Norma Desmond’s estate. Their meeting sets in motion the tragic outcome.
First mistaken as an undertaker for her newly-deceased monkey, Norma asks Joe to edit her impossibly long script for “Salomé” in which she envisions her comeback playing the teenage Biblical character— with Cecil B. DeMille directing. She insists Joe must live at the mansion while working on the script. Ever the opportunist, he takes the job but becomes a virtual prisoner when Norma falls in love with him. When he goes out to meet his friends (and also reconnecting with Betty to work on his own script), Norma threatens suicide. Admittedly mercenary but also with perhaps a hint of compassion, Joe becomes Norma’s lover and she showers him with gifts and clothes.
Max (who writes and sends fan mail to Norma to make her feel she is still remembered) is getting calls from the studio. They all assume that it is about her script but the truth is more devastating. Norma and Max visit the set of DeMille’s latest picture and, out of respect, the director plays along. Norma assumes she is back. Meanwhile, Betty and Joe are falling in love as they work on his script. When Norma finds out (along with other truths), she descends into madness.
Directed by Sammi Cannold, this is a spectacular production even if it isn’t Webber’s strongest musical. Done in a staged concert-style, it has more trimmings of a fully-realized production—similar to the first show in the series, “Guys & Dolls.” The incredible Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra is again onstage (and physically less obtrusive), surrounded by two sweeping staircases on either side. There is a stage-within-a-stage as a movie screen framed with red curtains sits upstage, behind the orchestra. Set Designer Paul Tate dePoo III pays homage to classic films by using black-and-white projections on the screen as backdrops for different scenes—the studio lot, the exterior and interior of the mansion, among others. A lovely touch is when Norma, Max, and Joe are watching one of Norma’s classics, “The Ordeal of Joan of Arc.” We see a snipped acted out behind them in front of the screen (and a scrim), segueing into a harsh memory of Norma being berated about her weight. Set pieces are brought in and out by the actors and Cory Pattack’s beautiful lighting design fills out and enhances every scene. Alejo Vietti costumes are stunning, particularly those for Norma. Using furs, crystals, and beautiful fabrics, his costumes embody the essence and style of old Hollywood.
There is no one more capable of capturing the delusion and emotional swings of Norma Desmond (and without turning the role into a parody) than the dazzling Stephanie J. Block, who has become one of Broadway’s brightest stars. Her voice is in top form and garnered prolonged applause and cheers after “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” The entire audience was on their feet at the finale. As Joe Gillis, Derek Klena stands toe-to toe with her. He manages to give a somewhat unlikeable character some glimpses of goodness. The casting of the Grammy Award®-winning baritone, Nathan Gunn as Max, is a brilliant touch. His acting shows great tenderness and his voice is deep and rich.
The talents of Auli’i Cravalho as Betty, Michael Malaikel as Joe’s pal Artie Green, and Paul Schoeffler as DeMille do not feel fully utilized but they do a great job with what they are given. While the ensemble numbers about the struggles, dreams, and pitfalls of the Hollywood dream are cliché, they do add some bright moments in contrast to the darker aspects of the story.
We wish these little gems would run longer but Block will be back later this month in the highly acclaimed revival of Lapine and Sondheim’s Tony Award–winning “Into The Woods.” “Sunset Boulevard” is a must-see for its creative artistry and Block’s performance alone—but there is so much more.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 30 minutes including one 15-minute intermission.
Advisory: Some profanity. Recommended for ages 12 and up. Please be aware that this production uses smoke, haze, flashing lights, and gunshot sound effects.
“Sunset Boulevard,” part of the Broadway Center Stage series, runs through February 8, 2023 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC 20566. For tickets and more information, click here. Masks are optional.