With direction by Michael Weber, Porchlight Music Theatre’s production of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s SUNSET BOULEVARD provides one wild ride of a musical evening. The musical’s storyline itself vacillates between the predictable and the shockingly dark and twisted. It chronicles the story of former silent movie star Norma Desmond as she descends further and further into madness. Based upon the film of the same name, Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book paints a portrait of Norma as she continues to lose her grasp on reality (which was not all that firm to begin with) and as she plots an unrealistic comeback into the Hollywood spotlight. Hollis Resnik conveys all of Norma’s mania and desperation in a star-worthy performance. Though Norma has long faded from the limelight by the time audiences meet her in SUNSET BOULEVARD, Resnik commands the stage with ease.
Of course, Norma’s fading into the shadows is somewhat parallelled by the show’s other core narrative thread: that of aspiring Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (Billy Rude). On the run from debt collectors, Joe stumbles upon Norma’s expansive, secluded mansion at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. By happenstance, Joe and Norma’s lives intertwine when she solicits him to edit her rather lengthy silent film script, which she believes will enable her to make her Hollywood comeback. As time goes on, it becomes clear that Norma is looking for far more than just a professional relationship with Joe. But Joe himself seems both repulsed and drawn to Norma in many ways, too, further complicating the relationship..
The twisted nature of Joe and Norma’s relationship becomes ever more bizarre, yet many of the musical’s other plot elements are more predictable. Namely, Joe develops another working relationship with young studio assistant Betty Schaffer (Michelle Lauto). While Joe fully knows that Betty is engaged to his best friend, Artie (Joe Giovanetti), he shows little remorse about making his feelings for Betty known. Still, the unfolding of that particular plot point—and some of the other related storylines about young hopefuls trying to make their way in Hollywood—doesn’t add much color to the story. It is, though, an interesting contrast with Norma’s career demise to see so many young people hoping for their big breaks, moving in the opposite direction.
The production design is not overly elaborate but conveys the hustle and bustle of Hollywood with many touches of glamour. The design makes clever use of Anthony Churchill’s projections to portray different backdrops and shifts in location. Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s set is anchored in many ways by the opulent, golden staircase in Norma’s mansion. It’s an iconic symbol that represents both Norma’s rise—for we know her success is what allowed her to purchase such a luxurious home—and her inevitable downfall, both career-wise and as she slips further away from sanity. Bill Morey’s costume designs for Norma are also particularly apt, with flashy looks that demonstrate her desire to keep up her appearance and draw attention.
As Joe, Rude gives a performance that allows us to see why he finds Norma simultaneously alluring and appalling. But Rude’s rendition on the whole tends towards the even-keeled. He’s an amenable presence, but his acting choices don’t quite stand up to the charisma that Resnik displays. His vocals are sufficient, though not superlative. While I found Rude’s Joe to be somewhat likeable, I think he ultimately needed to decide if he wanted to lean more into the sympathetic side of his character or else steer the performance more towards the darker side (after all, Joe is far from a saint in this show). Michelle Lauto, always a delight to see in a Porchlight production, delivers as usual. She ensures that she doesn’t play Betty too sweet and innocent and focuses in on the character’s intelligence and ideals. Lauto’s vocals are also crystalline, and all her songs are shining moments. Larry Adams is simultaneously stoic and empathetic as Norma’s servant Max von Mayerling, displaying the unending devotion he has to Norma.
Above all, Hollis Resnik’s Norma is what gives this SUNSET BOULEVARD its legs. Although Webber’s score for SUNSET is not his most distinctive, the music is still filled with a number of his classic full-bodied musical motifs. It’s no surprise that Resnik’s rendition of the famous “As If We Never Said Goodbye” in the second act is one of the most significant moments in the production. The song itself is the most well-constructed and coherent number in the score. Norma finds herself once again on the Paramount lot and has visions of Hollywood’s adoration flooding back to her. It’s a magnificent character study, and Resnik mines all the layers in it. She nails it vocally, and she also finds a way to hover between her simultaneous elation at her return and the realization that she will never, in fact, really return to stardom. This characterizes Resnik’s take on Norma on the whole, as she finds that balance between larger-than-life star and a deeply vulnerable, unstable woman who knows that her best years have passed her by.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s SUNSET BOULEVARD runs through December 8 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $39-$66. Visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org or call 773.777.9884.
Photo by Michael Courier
Originally published on BroadwayWorld.com