With 11 Academy Award Nominations and three wins in 1950 (including Best Original Screenplay), the film of Sunset Boulevard, written by the great Billy Wilder and frequent award-winning collaborator Charles Brackett, makes for a wonderful book for a musical. The dark story of Hollywood fame, and its loss, driving someone to madness captures what so many believe about “those Hollywood people.” That they’ve got to be nuts and total egomaniacs to give up their privacy and personal lives just to act on film. The shape of the story resonates with the audience. You’re starting from a place of genius.
And Andrew Lloyd Webber is an acknowledged genius of musical theatre crafting evocative melodies that capture the feeling of a story. So, it’s no surprise that the adaptation of this most Hollywood of Hollywood films to stage keeps all that was best about the original story and adds melody on top, like the icing on an already delicious cake. The lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton pair nicely with Wilder’s script. It’s clearly later Webber, as it comes up with a few really good melodies and then relies on them far too heavily. Webber got lazy and doesn’t write enough songs any more, but still, you know what you signed up for. It won several Tonys against anemic competition.
Sunset Boulevard was also one of the few films to be nominated in all four acting categories, though it won none of them. But the performances by William Holden, Erich von Stroheim, and especially Gloria Swanson are now regarded as among the most important ever put on film. It was among the first 25 films selected for the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
So it’s vitally important to get this thing cast correctly.
Porchlight got a lot of it right.
Billy Rude as Joe Gillis is absolutely outstanding. He sings the hell out of it and is even more bitter, jaded and cynical than William Holden in the original. He’s just absolutely angry at Hollywood for being a disappointment, but especially at himself. He’s vibrant every second he’s on stage.
Larry Adams as Max, Norma Desmond’s ex-husband/manservant is also splendid. He hangs on to the dream of past glory, protects Norma, who he still views as the fragile 16-year-old he first met and enables all her delusions, perhaps even creating some of them. You can feel his love and faith. And he sings powerfully.
Michelle Lauto as Betty brings actual ambition and hunger to her role. She’s not just a cute excuse, but someone who genuinely sees Joe’s potential and who wants something for herself. She doesn’t have to be the center of attention, but she wants to be a success. Again, she sings amazingly well, as she should.
The bit players and chorus members have all come to crush it, and they do. Whether they’re prancing about in fake harem costumes as Paramount extras or partying on New Year’s Eve or being the patrons of Schwab’s they bring it and are delightful. When the boys all get together to be tailors in “The Lady’s Paying” it’s one of the highlights of the show.
You might notice what, or rather, who, I’m not mentioning. And that’s the problem with this show. It has a gaping void at its center called Norma Desmond.
But that’s actually a little bit too harsh. Hollis Resnik, who is the multiple award-winning marquee name here, is ok with the acting portions of her part. She plays Norma as completely mad from the get-go and there isn’t really a descent from there. It’s the same problem a lot of actors have with Lady MacBeth, and it’s a choice. You can see what she’s doing with it, and she does it consistently throughout. If she was just acting this, it would be adequate.
She can’t sing this part. I have no idea why anyone allowed her to go on stage when she was so overmatched by the moderately-challenging score. It wasn’t fair to her and it was certainly not fair to any paying audience. I don’t know about you, but when I go to a show, I want everyone to be brilliant and to be having fun and doing work they can be proud of and entertaining everyone. I want everyone to absolutely kill every minute they’re on stage. I want to be able to praise them and say how great they were. I have to do the opposite here, and I hate to.
Ms. Resnik, like a kid in their first choir concert, cupped her ear on stage in full view of the audience in order to try to hear herself and achieve pitch. Which she, admittedly, did fairly often in the first act though the brittle sliding-up to notes while the audience sat on tenterhooks wondering if she’d get there was nerve-wracking. By the second, she was vocally gassed and sang so horribly flat that it was painful to sit through. The hand kept going consistently to her ear. I was mortified for her. Her showstopper, “As If We Never Said Goodbye” was dreadfully off-pitch and hurt my soul. It’s not even a hard song. I felt so embarrassed for her.
Even if she was, maybe sick, though she didn’t sound like she was, I don’t see this getting better. She can’t hear it. The hand-to-ear gives that away.
I have to give a shout-out to the wonderful period details of this. Costumes by Bill Morey are fabulous nods to both the 1940s and 1920s. The projections by Anthony Churchill add to this production from the fake movie posters of Norma Desmond, to the fake paintings of Norma Desmond, to the clever scene changes done with nothing more than light, it’s just good design. Kudos. It’s a small space, and the set design by Jeffrey D. Kmiec makes the most of it and gives you the feel of Hollywood grandeur.
I can’t recommend this production, though it has so very many good things going for it and is clearly the work of many talented hands.
Porchlight Music Theatre’s Sunset Boulevard runs from now through December 8. You can find tickets here.
All photos provided by Porchlight Music Theatre.