Sunset Boulevard

Musical Theater West pays tribute to the platinum anniversary of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical with a spirited but uneven production.

David Burnham and Valerie Perri in <i>Sunset Boulevard</i>
David Burnham and Valerie Perri in Sunset Boulevard
(© Ken Jacques Photography)

To celebrate the original London production’s 20th anniversary, Musical Theater West has produced an impressively barebones version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard. Without the gargantuan set for which the original production is known, director Larry Raben uses glamorous but easily movable structures and visual aids to evoke the noir-ish period. Enhanced by a supporting cast, it is only a shame that the production’s Joe Gillis gives an uncomfortably dull performance.

Following the storyline of the 1950 Billy Wilder classic film, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter hustles a faded silent star of the 1920s, who has long been forgotten. However, he unknowingly gets sucked into a web of delusion and manipulation and becomes her victim.

Webber’s score features several popular tunes, made more famous by Barbra Streisand’s versions on her Back to Broadway album. “With One Look,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” and “The Greatest Star Of All” are haunting. However, Webber’s motifs are not strong enough to sustain the long running time. Most of the melodies used for casual dialogue drone on instead of adding color.

As Norma, Valerie Perri evokes a necessary fragility. In quiet moments, she is spellbinding. When Norma returns to Paramount Pictures and is finally showered in adulation by movie extras and crew, Perri caresses their hands with kindness and genuine gratitude. Perri’s singing voice is striking, and she sells Norma’s big songs. Unfortunately, when Norma loses control and cries, Perri sinks into camp. There are two ways to play these scenes: authentic anguish or crafty manipulation. Perri does neither and seems more like a parody, evoking Carol Burnett’s interpretation on her TV show.

The musical’s Joe Gillis, David Burnham, has a lyrical voice but his acting consists of bland line readings and facial grimaces. When performing with others, he does not interact, but just recites his lines, bringing neither feeling nor authenticity to his readings. This is most noticeable in his scenes with Perri. He does not give any sense that he is frustrated, enthralled, or afraid by his being trapped. It is unclear whether Joe loves, pities, or loathes Norma by how Burnham plays the part.

Norman Large is a booming presence as Norma’s manservant, Max. Whether singing, condescending to Gillis, protecting his lady, or just standing in the corner, Large is compelling. Ashley Fox Linton is warm and ingratiating as Betty, the ingénue Joe truly loves. Linton makes it clear that Betty passionately loves the movies and that her passion for screenwriting draws her to Gillis. Playing two minor roles of a sleazy producer and later a lizard salesman, Jeff Skowron hilariously takes lines that are not humorous on their own and offers sly interpretations.

The chorus turns the act-one finale, “This Time Next Year,” into a buoyant, hopeful ensemble number. They more than recover from the frighteningly uncomfortable opening number, “Let’s Have Lunch,” which is chaotic and incomprehensible mostly because the orchestra drowns out much of the dialogue.

The orchestra’s overwhelming presence hurts the production throughout, not just the opening number, which appears to be a sound mixing issue with the microphones in the pit overpowering the cast. The orchestra levels are not the only sound issues. Quite a few lines of dialogue are lost when the microphones fail or the sound levels are turned up too late.

Like Perri, Raben’s talent shines most in the quiet moments, such as Norma’s already mentioned scene on the Paramount soundstage and the split-screen effect of Norma’s suicide attempt juxtaposed with the youthful hopefuls celebrating New Year’s. Raben could have celebrated a tight production had he cast a dynamic Joe and reigned in his Norma from falling into hammy trappings.

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Sunset Boulevard

Closed: July 28, 2013