By Kay Kipling
How do you make a musical version of such an iconic Hollywood film as Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard? It certainly takes confidence on the part of the composer, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been short of that.
His version of Sunset, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, is likewise a big undertaking for the Players, not only in terms of production values (remember faded screen star Norma Desmond’s mansion in the film?) but in its demands for strong vocals and a willingness to reach for both the drama and the camp of the original. Now onstage, the Players production reaches some of its goals and misses on others, but it’s nevertheless an accomplishment for the community theater.
This Sunset Boulevard is sung-through, with little spoken dialogue, making it something of a vocal Olympics for the leads, especially Norma herself (Jeanette Larranaga). Larranaga can hit the notes, all right, although hers isn’t necessarily a big Broadway-style voice. Her interpretation of Norma, in her flowing and often exotic clothing (costumes by Kaylene McCaw) is broadly dramatic, with lots of gesturing—a leftover of her silent film days, where the stars had “faces,” not speeches.
Her first meeting with struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Logan O’Neill) sets the tone for their relationship: She’s the boss, the one with the money and a script she wants him to assist with for her big movie comeback (she prefers the word “return”). O’Neill can’t hold a candle to William Holden in the film (after all, who could?), but he looks the part of a guy on the make, desperate to keep whatever foothold he’s able to carve out in Tinseltown.
It’s a place where everyone is on the make, of course, including script reader Betty (Sarah Cassidy), who also wants to team up with Joe on a movie idea, and a variety of writers, starlets and other wannabes portrayed by a small ensemble cast. Against the backdrop of a studio soundstage or a New Year’s Eve party, they mingle and share their hopes of making it big. Meanwhile, Norma’s loyal factotum, Max (Tim Fitzgerald), keeps a wary eye on Joe and anyone else he’s afraid might hurt the emotionally unstable Norma.
Fitzgerald gives a nicely modulated supporting performance, and Cassidy and O’Neill sing well together, although their romantic pairing never really takes off. But perhaps the biggest success of the show comes with its set and production design by director Michael Newton-Brown, which utilizes a few appropriate clips from the film version, along with a fairly grand vision of Norma’s home and plausible reproductions of landmarks like Schwab’s, and manages to moves quickly and efficiently from one to the other to keep the action going. That and at least a few of the Lloyd Webber songs, like the title number (memorably delivered by O’Neill), the entertaining ensemble piece The Lady’s Paying, the wistful New Ways to Dream and the song you’re most likely to remember after you leave the theater, As If We Never Said Goodbye, Norma’s love song to the magic of movie making, are worth the ticket price.
Sunset Boulevard continues through Jan. 27 on the Players stage; for tickets call 365-2494 or go to theplayers.org.