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December 21, 2010

Signature Theater gives 'Sunset Boulevard' fresh close-up

Billy Wilder’s celebrated 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” seems perfect as it is, brilliantly spinning the tale of former silent screen goddess Norma Desmond pathetically fueling her dream of a comeback with the help of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter.

But some folks have seen in the material the stuff of a Broadway musical, starting with the movie’s iconic star, Gloria Swanson, who got far along into an adaptation in the 1950s before Paramount pulled the plug by denying the rights — life cruelly imitating art, you might say.

Andrew Lloyd Webber had better luck when he gave “Sunset Boulevard” the full musical treatment in 1993. The show didn’t achieve the blockbuster status of Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” but it boasts some of the composer’s most attractive songs and has the advantage of a strong book and often clever lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton.

Signature Theatre, the Arlington, Va.-based company with an enviable track record of staging musicals with abundant style, has given “Sunset Boulevard” a handsome new production that is likely to be packing audiences in for the length of the run.

Florence Lacey doesn’t give off quite enough aura to dominate the stage completely as Norma, but she’s a vivid actress and singer nonetheless and she reveals the character’s fragile emotional state affectingly. D.B. Bonds is impressive, dramatically and musically, in the William Holden role of screenwriter Joe Gillis, who gets much more than he bargained for when he pulls into the driveway of an old Hollywood mansion.

Ed Dixon, as Norma’s rigid, devoted butler Max, does

a terrific job keeping the caricature from obscuring the character, and his big, mostly firm bass voice serves him well in the vocal numbers. Susan Derry brings snap to the role of Betty, Joe’s eventual love interest, but her singing could use more finesse.

Sean Thompson is sure and engaging as Joe’s pal Artie. Harry A. Winter is convincing as Cecil B. DeMille; his parting with Norma has a particular affecting touch. J. Fred Shiffman is more than believable as the oily studio bigwig Sheldrake.

The rest of the ensemble is finely honed and handles Karma Camp’s choreography with sufficient sizzle. The 20-piece orchestra, the largest ever used in a Signature production, makes a sturdy, expressive sound, deftly led by Jon Kalbfleisch. (This is high season in DC for productions featuring what qualifies as a hefty orchestra for a Broadway musical these days; the splendid Tony-winning revival of "South Pacific" is delivering a similar instrumental kick at the Kennedy Center.)

It’s probably impossible to avoid an element of camp in “Sunset Boulevard.” Director Eric Schaeffer lets quite a lot of it in; sometimes, he even seems determined to trigger memories of those delicious spoofs of the movie done by Carol Burnett and Harvey Korman. This is especially true of the ready-for-my-close-up finale, when otherwise spot-on costume designer Kathleen Geldard gives Norma a Bob Mackie-worthy outfit that may well have you tittering.

The periodic use of black and white film projections to set scenes and depict some of the action is neatly done, but it keeps reminding you of the superior Wilder movie, which, I assume, was not the intention.

There’s another questionable bit of business during the song “The Lady’s Paying,” when a men’s fashion contingent bounds onstage to do a makeover on Joe. We’re treated to a tired old mincing, lisping act that seems even more dated, unfunny and borderline-offensive than ever.

Those quibbles aside, Schaeffer guides the action breezily and often compellingly, aided by Daniel Conway’s classy, versatile scenic design. That design includes lots of wonderful little period details, right down to the colored aluminum glasses for the guests in the New Year’s party scene.

While it can’t eclipse the silver screen original — what could? — “Sunset Boulevard” represents some of Webber’s most polished work. Signature’s passionate, attractive production helps it shine all the more brightly.

Posted by Tim Smith at 1:00 AM | | Comments (0)
Categories: Drama Queens

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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