Signature Theatre has a fabulous holiday gift for the Washington area: a lushly staged and vibrantly performed production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, the musical version of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic film. In director Eric Schaeffer’s hands, the piece becomes a journey of dramatic twists and turns, shrouded in moody mists and lush orchestrations and leading to a thoroughly chilling destination.
It’s a challenging musical to stage, since Lloyd Webber’s score is romantic but often repetitious, and some of the lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton veer dangerously close to parody. But Schaeffer mostly avoids melodrama and caricature, instead focusing on solid storytelling and character development. He’s also stretched the budget with a rare 20-piece orchestra, which produces rich, surging melodies, and the show’s set design offers a plush ambiance.
The work focuses on Norma Desmond (Florence Lacey), a major star of silent movies who has long since faded into obscurity — and who lives, shut away with her memories and dreams of a comeback, in her museum-like mansion alongside her faithful servant Max (a vaguely menacing Ed Dixon). When destitute young screenwriter Joe Gillis (D. B. Bonds) stumbles into her realm, Norma lures him into her unwholesome fantasies. Both are opportunists, but Joe ultimately proves no match for the grotesque Norma.
Lacey seems like unlikely casting at first, as she lacks the sinewy presence of the manipulative, aging creature who has created her own spider-web of a world. Moreover, Lacey’s face is not obviously a well-defined visage capable of telling vivid stories without benefit of dialogue, in black-and-white close-up. But when she sings, Lacey’s powerful but nuanced vocals make palpable the woman’s essential vulnerability, while also letting us glimpse the charisma that made Norma Desmond a star.
Her performance of the ballad, “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” provokes the show’s most intense emotions. A stagehand offhandedly shines a spotlight on her, and Norma’s slack features tighten, the eyes ignite, and her face re-animates. As Lacey deftly shows us, Norma may not realize it, but this is the moment she is ready for her close-up. In fact, this scene makes the character’s iconic call for her trademark camera shot in the show’s stunning climax, when her grasp on reality is shattered, resonate even more so powerfully.
Bonds exudes boyish charm, softening the sharper edges of Joe’s opportunism. He’s well matched bySusan Derry as Betty, an appealing screenwriter who stirs Joe’s flagging conscience; in their second-act duet, “Too Much in Love to Care,” their soaring voices are magnificent. Dixon, who is cartoonishly outfitted by costumer Kathleen Geldard like a refugee from The Addams Family, too often lurches into melodrama with the dialogue, but displays an astonishing vocal range.
Schaeffer’s pacing is mostly brisk, slowing only to underscore portentous moments. For example, shortly after Norma and Joe meet, she invites him to sit. When the writer hesitates, the action pauses. Lacey’s Norma glares at him, and the atmosphere electrifies in stillness until she bares her teeth and commands him to sit in a steely voice. His will crumbling, the young man sits, and we know his fate is sealed.
The musicians are perched behind Mediterranean-style grillwork above Daniel Conway’s remarkable set, a theater-filling thrust platform (the audience sits on three sides) on which Desmond’s ornate palazzo, with its ever-so-important grand staircase, magically disappears and re-assembles during the numerous scene changes.
Sunset Boulevard may not be a street of dreams for the characters we meet there, but for the rest of us, it’s well worth the trip.