With “Phantom of the Opera” having celebrated the all-time record of twenty-five years on Broadway last week and two local venues going head-to-head with Andrew Lloyd Webber offerings, the once mega-popular British powerhouse composer appears to be back in the spotlight. While Marriott Theatre is presenting the revue “Now and Forever: The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, ” Drury Lane is presenting its first-ever mounting of “Sunset Boulevard.”
The 1993 spectacle, now twenty years old, is a show so big that its weight has infamously crushed stars who have attempted it, even sparking lawsuits in the process. The problem is that unlike most Lloyd Webber shows, which are through-composed and virtually operatic, “Sunset Boulevard” folds in large portions of spoken dialogue taken directly from the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film upon which it is based. Thus, the leading role of forgotten silent-movie queen Norma Desmond—originally played by Gloria Swanson in the film and herself a forgotten silent-movie queen at the time—calls for someone who can sing up a storm but who can also act as much through dialogue as through song.
Patti LuPone, who created the role in London but was later deemed by Lloyd Webber to be unsuitable for the Broadway run despite it having been promised to her, represents a singer who could not muster the drama whereas Faye Dunaway, later tapped for the Los Angeles production but who was removed from the role by Lloyd Webber before ever hitting the stage, was an actress who could not muster the singing.
Kudos to director William Osetek for casting local veteran Christine Sherrill as Norma Desmond in a tour de force performance that despite her excellent work here over the years, seems to have somewhat come out of left field given the extraordinary demands of this show. Sherrill has the ability to speak iconic lines from the classic film as if they have never been spoken before and are truly her own. She seems to be making a mere observation when, after being told that she used to be big, that “I am big: it’s the pictures that got small.” And yet Sherrill can also sing the big numbers such as “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” with true tenderness and vulnerability as well as the pipes and vocal technique to bring off their finales with bravura. As Norma, she has swagger and confidence. She has been around the block a number of times, for sure, but this is a Norma who is not a Lily Munster caricature as she is often portrayed, but a beautiful woman past her prime who simply does not realize that time has passed her by. That sensual quality has always been central to the musical in a way that never existed in the darker film, as we need to believe that down-on-his-luck writer Joe Gillis (Will Ray) can actually be attracted to Norma as she seduces him for the musical to work.
No less important in the musical version is that her butler Max (Don Richard) feels as much for Norma as she feels for Joe. In this production, the moments where Max reveals his love for Norma and his previous relationship to her are some of the scene-stealing moments of the evening.
The love relationship of Joe and Betty Schaefer (Dara Cameron) has always seemed forced in this show, particularly given that, in the musical, the Norma and Joe relationship takes center-stage with Norma and Max the secondary relationship. Lloyd Webber sees the more conventional Joe and Betty moments as an opportunity for some Rodgers and Hammerstein-like romantic singing but the music and the relationship have always come across as trite through no fault of the performers.
The original show had a spectacular set which, in retrospect, was really the last of an opulent era of mega-scenery shows featuring landing helicopters, flying chandeliers and the like that often received more applause than the shows themselves. The Drury Lane set is industrial scaffolding the top of which is a large catwalk that is visibly and physically in the way of some of the props, which are often sparse, although at one point a car makes an appearance, and the finale includes a grand staircase that, oddly, makes its only appearance at the end of the show. The big production numbers have also been trimmed back, the dance element in the show reduced to a few energized twirls. The final scene cuts the musical ending and instead stops at the film’s “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” None of this was missed, to be honest.
Lloyd Webber’s music for the show has always been controversial in that unlike the jaunty Expressionistic Franz Waxman film score, it is quite conventional and sentimental, almost schmaltzy at times. The orchestration of the show, one of the last in recent times that required an orchestra, has been reduced to synthesized strings grounded by a single violin on top and double bass on the bottom, but works surprisingly well, especially with a handful of real winds and brass.
“Sunset Boulevard” is not to everyone’s taste, to be sure, and many have wondered why such a perfect film noir should have ever been made into a musical at all. It was an idea that curiously, was originally pursued by none other than Gloria Swanson in the early-1950s as a vehicle for herself in the wake of veteran actress Gertrude Lawrence’s success in “The King and I.” That version, preserved in a demo recording, misguidedly turns the tragic ending of the film into a feel-good musical-theater ending. Much like Norma’s self-aggrandizing “Salome” script in the film, it, too, was rejected by Paramount. Life imitating art imitating life. (Dennis Polkow)
At Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane Road, Oakbrook Terrace, (630)530-0111. Through March 24. (Half-Priced Tickets)