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Arts & Entertainment

Theater Review: Sunset Blvd.

From Issue: Volume XXI - Number 15

By Ben Miles

Twenty years ago the Don Black, Christopher Hampton, Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, “Sunset Boulevard,” made its stage debut in London. Two years later, in 1995, “Sunset Boulevard” earned a Tony Award for Best Musical in its Broadway incarnation. Nevertheless, the show – due to legal disputes and overboard production costs – was never profitable.

Based on Billy Wider’s 1950 classic film of the same title, it was Stephan Sondheim who initially attempted to adapt the movie into a stage musical. When Wilder implored Sondheim not to write a musical about “Sunset Boulevard,” but instead to create an opera – closing his appeal with, “After all it’s about a dethroned queen” – Sondheim was discouraged and abandoned the project.

Black and Hampton, who wrote the book and lyrics, as well as Lloyd Weber – who composed the music – kept Wilder’s assessment in mind when they picked up the project three decades later. They created an operatic “Sunset Boulevard.”

Maintaining that grand operatic tradition, the current Musical Theater West production of “Sunset Boulevard,” under the commanding direction of Larry Rabin, along with David Lamoureax’s muscular musical direction and John Todd’s serviceable choreography, is long on libretto and melodrama. But it’s lacking in sustained and gripping sustenance.

The scenario is simple enough: Ambitious Joe Gillis (a handsome and vocally astute David Burnham) is a struggling Hollywood screen-scribe, on the run from agents whoseek to repossess his automobile. Gillis eludes his pursuers by stashing his vehicle in the garage of a dilapidated mansion on Sunset Boulevard. It isn’t long before Gillis encounters the proprietor of the disarrayed estate, one Norma Desmond – the “greatest star of all” from yesteryear’s silent era (an appropriately over-the-top Valerie Perri, in pristine vocal condition). When Joe, suddenly star-struck says to her, “You use to be in Pictures – you used to be big,” Desmond proclaims, “I am big…it’s the pictures that got small.”

After learning that Gillis has screenwriting skills, Desmond enlists his services as script doctor for her sorry screenplay, “Salome.” But before long, and despite his slowly budding affair with young script editor Betty Shaeffer (the wholesome Ashley Fox Linton), Gillis is soon caught in Desmond’s web of delusion, eventually becoming her kept man.

With a strong cast of support players, including Norman Large as Desmond’s mysterious butler Max; David Aldrete as Cecil B. De Mille; Marc Ginsberg as Artie Green; and Jeff Skowron doing double duty as Sheldrake and Manfred, as well as sterling production values (J. Branson, scenery design; Kate Poppen, costumes; Jean- Yves Tessier, lighting; Kevin Clowes, technical design; and Julie Ferrin, sound design), “Sunset Boulevard” offers two-dozen songs – mostly forgettable, but all delivered with pleasing pizzazz . What’s more, the Sunset Boulevard car chase scenes are portrayed through huge projections of black & white vintage film clips, a wonderfully activating directorial touch.

“Sunset Boulevard” is an unwieldy tale of deception – self and otherwise – egomania and opportunism, themes certainly suitable for an opera. “Sunset Boulevard,” however, might be more dramatically satisfying were it done – like Wilder’s movie – as a nonmusical. The swollen compositions weaken the story’s impact.

“Sunset Boulevard” continues at Musical Theater West through July 28. Musical Theatre West conducts performances at the Richard and Karen Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 East Atherton Street, Long Beach. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and at 7 p.m. Sundays. Matinees are Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. (on Thursday, July 25, there will also be an 8 p.m. performance). For reservations, call (562) 856-1999, ext. 4. For online ticketing and further information, visit