By DANTE J.J. BEVILACQUA
For 21st Century Media
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” created in the mid-1990s had a two-year run on Broadway.
The musical version of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film had a troubled stage history, opening in London in 1993 and the following year on Broadway where it won seven Tony Awards including Best Musical in 1995. It was an artistic achievement but a financial failure. Frank Rich in his book “Hot Seat” called the show a “flop-hit.”
With a monstrous stage setting and a weekly operating cost of $739,000 dollars, it lost nearly $20 million, in part due to several lawsuits by actresses cast then set aside for the role of the faded silent film star Norma Desmond.
Captivating stars in the lead role included; Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close, Elaine Paige and on the down side, Petula Clark.
So it’s no small feat that the Media Theatre has pulled off a credible rendition of the sordid tale of Hollywood desperation and dementia.
Rather than focus on the cavernous haunts of Norma Desmond, Media chose to zero in on the mercurial film star’s character and interactions with those around her. For this they acquired the services of mega-star and Broadway veteran Ann Crumb in the lead role of Norma Desmond.
In a masterstroke of fiscal and artistic creativity, the Media Theatre brain trust chose to mount their run of “Sunset Boulevard” by trimming its outlandish stage mechanics to the minimum necessary to sustain the central metaphor of Norma’s decaying Hollywood mansion; making abundant use of rear stage projections.
This is not to imply that Media’s re-imagination of “Sunset Boulevard” looks or feels cheap. Director Jesse Cline peopled this show with a fine assortment of “A” list musical performers who give contrast and needed energy to this dark musical. The nine-piece orchestra under Scott Anthony’s musical direction gloriously provides the fulsome sound so necessary to a Lloyd Weber score.
“Sunset Boulevard,” is one of a kind. Drenched in film-noir angst, it is sardonic with post-war cynicism in its depiction of Norma Desmond’s doomed “return” (she hates “comeback”) and Tinsel Town’s willful ignorance of its living legends.
When talkies pushed silent films and their stars out of the limelight, Norma Desmond locked herself into her gilded mansion with her memories, a servile ex-husband and a chimp as her only companions. Twenty years later, when disillusioned screenwriter Joe Gillis happens to stumble within her reach, Norma clutches his vitality to her with a death grip.
Norma is convinced she can make a big Hollywood comeback playing a teenaged Salome in a biblical epic film she’s scripted herself. Gillis ends up moving in to rewrite her script.
Not willing to give up the good life she lavishes upon him, he becomes her reluctant boy toy, which ruins his budding romance with up-and-coming young screenwriter Betty Schaefer. Ultimately, despite the desperate machinations of Norma’s once-husband and now loyal butler Max, both Norma’s revised script and her shabby affair lead to the show’s highly dramatic, tragic denouement.
In the lead role, Ann Crumb may appear too young, too feisty and devilishly attractive for the role of a grotesque woman past her prime. Her good looks make her love affair with Gillis less bizarre and distasteful but also robs the story of much of its necessary Gothic flavor.
Crumb does however have an awesome stage presence, theatricality and vocal power to pull it off. She possesses a vocal range so powerful that every song displays a range of emotions, from the bittersweet “With One Look” to her fool’s paradise return to Paramount Studios, “As If We Never Said Good Bye.”
Sean Thompson’s smart, often sarcastic Joe Gillis is the perfect foil for Norma. Thompson nails all the cynicism as the play’s spokesman for Hollywood film making hypocrisy as he is both used and the user.
Nicholas Saverine as Max, Norma’s one-time film director, devoted ex-husband and now butler/aide/chauffeur, exudes a protective menace and has a great baritone voice. Elisa Matthews is a delightful Betty Schaefer, who falls in love with Joe while collaborating on a film script.
Without the gargantuan set for which the original production is known, scenic designer Matthew Miller uses glamorous but easily movable structures and visual aids to evoke the noir-ish period.
“Sunset Boulevard” is not everyone’s taste, to be sure. What we see in this drama with music is a story about people who are reaching for stars who will not get there; an actress who will never get her glory back, a screenwriter who will not write the perfect play, a would be writer who gives up the love of her life and many others who tell the tale of dreams that will never come true.
But the folks at Media Theatre are to be commended for taking this challenging piece of theater, and gathering the expertise necessary to turn this work into an obvious success.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Sunset Boulvard”
WHEN: Through May 18.
WHERE: Media Theatre, 104 E. State St. in Media
TICKETS: $25 – $42.
INFO.: Cal (610) 891-0100 or check Mediatheatre.org.