By M. ENGLISH
For 21st Century Media News
With a nod to one of the many songs she’s recorded (specifically, “Good News, Bad News” from her appearance in Neil Simon’s “Goodbye Girl”), the good news is Ann Crumb is playing Norma Desmond in Media Theatre’s current production of “Sunset Boulevard.” The bad news is the show ends May 18.
If you’ve already caught one of the local performances about the faded silent film star, you know how convincing Crumb is in the Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Don’t be fooled, though. The personable leading lady — a Tony Award nominee for “Anna Karenina” and respected veteran of the New York and London stage — is nothing like the delusional woman she’s been bringing to life in Media. It’s not Crumb’s first go-round as Norma Desmond, either. She played the role — originated by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 Billy Wilder film – four years ago at the Denver area’s Arvada Center, a portrayal that earned her a Best Actress Award.
“In the sense of time constraints … the limited amount of time available to rehearse … it’s nice to have that familiarity,” Crumb said. “With any role, though, whether I’ve done it before or not, I try to approach it fresh — make it my own. I haven’t seen it done on stage, or the movie, for quite a while, although London’s my second home, and I did see it there with Patti LuPone, Petula Clark and Elaine Paige. And I’ve seen other people do it on Broadway. So I probably draw something from all of that. On the other hand, I think any life experience you have is going to affect your performance in any role.
“Probably the biggest challenge: it’s a difficult sing as we say because the music ranges from the very gentle to big belting sounds. It’s a very emotional play, too, with lots of ups and downs, and it scales a long, dramatic timeline with all of the mental and physical deterioration the character experiences.”
“Sunset Boulevard” director Jesse Cline initially met Crumb when Media Theatre opened in 1993. Since then, the two have worked together on multiple occasions.
“The first time I saw Ann was in the Broadway production of ‘Aspects of Love,’ which is one of my favorites, if not my favorite show, although ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is quickly becoming my favorite,” said Cline, also Media Theatre’s artistic director. “She was wonderful. So, when this theater opened and the producers asked whom I’d like as my opening night guest, I immediately said Ann Crumb.
“When I called her in New York, she said, ‘Are you aware that I grew up in Media?’ I was not. So I’ve always thought there was something almost providential about that.”
Subsequent Cline-Crumb collaborations at Media Theatre would include her starring roles in “Master Class,” “Wings,” “Souvenir,” “The Who’s Tommy” and Monty Python’s “Spamalot.” Crumb has also logged numerous appearances at Philadelphia regional theaters, most recently in The Walnut Street Theatre’s production of “Other Desert Cities.”
“I think Ann and I work well together because I certainly trust her instincts as an actor, and I think she trusts my instincts,” Cline said. “That affects everything so directly. I mean, that kind of trust really is the key to any good relationship, don’t you think?”
Crumb, also a veteran of avant-garde and regional theater as well as TV soap opera and primetime drama, agreed.
“Definitely, plus I think after you have experience working with someone, you communicate so much better, almost instinctively,” she said. “Jesse is wonderful to work with. I love being here, too, because I get to work with people like Elisa Matthews, who plays Betty Schaefer — whom I worked with in ‘Master Class’ — and who’s so gifted and wonderful, even though in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ she’s stealing my young man. And I have two terrific leading men — Sean Thompson, who plays Joe, and Nick Saverine, who plays Max. The whole cast (including Patrick Ludt in the role of Artie and Kelly Briggs as Cecil B. DeMille) is terrific.
“My mother and father (Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb) are 85, and they still live in Media, so it’s nice to be here for that reason, too. Nice to have a home away from home. People in this area are lucky to have such quality theater so close to home. The productions are truly wonderful — the quality of the work done here, excellent. So I consider it a great gift to be here.”
Growing up in a musical family (brother David Crumb is also an accomplished composer), Crumb sang for fun and studied dance but envisioned a career as a concert violinist. Those plans changed after a serious riding accident.
“I ended up under a horse,” she said matter-of-factly. “My right arm was in a cast for two years. I was eventually able to play again, but I realized I wasn’t going to be able to play at the level required to make it professionally. Acting didn’t come until later. I was actually in a college play before I saw a play on the professional stage.”
Between the ongoing demands of her busy professional career — among them, the release of her latest CD — Crumb is “heavily active in animal rescue,” particularly dogs, via her non-profit The Rescue Express (www.therescueexpress.com).
“We try to find foster homes and adoptive homes for as many of these animals as possible, but it’s a constant, uphill battle and fundraising is always a big concern,” she said. “But I’m passionate about saving these animals, so that will always be one of my priorities regardless of whatever else I’m doing.”
Crumb will be on stage as Norma Desmond through May 18 in Media Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard.”