Photos courtesy of Ken Jacques
Joe Gills (David Burnham) was in dire straits. His car was about to be repossessed, he couldn't find script work at Paramount, and, unlike his friends, he couldn't vent his frustration at parties. A car chase, a wreck, and he found himself at the mausoleum mansion of one Norma Desmond (Valerie Perri), dispossessed of silent film stardom by the advent of the talkies. They collaborated, they coupled, and, eventually, they ignited, like an inferno in a wax museum. That's Musical Theatre West's stunning production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," directed by Larry Raben, with musical direction by David Lamoreux and choreography by John Todd.
The staging was monumental, the better to highlight Norma's megalomania and her fall from grace from a once luminous career. Though her mansion (kudos to Music Theatre of Wichita for scenery and costumes) was done up in brothel red, its tone was funereal. The space was littered with portraits of her in her glory days, so much so that you would think that it was she who had died and not her beloved pet chimp. Through this exhausting space traipsed her discreet, ever-loyal servant/biggest fan Max (Norman Large). Whatever happened in that mansion felt like it happened in slow motion because the past had not passed but lived on in all its delusion and withered grandeur. The effect was nicely contrasted in a New Year's Eve scene: on the left side of the stage, Norma broke down when Joe abandoned her; on the right side, Joe partied with people his own age and tax bracket.
As the flame to his moth, Perri's Norma and Burnham's Joe were exquisitely cast. In tone, gesture and, especially facial expressions worthy of a silent screen star, Perri made her Norma operatically tragic, a queen who again wanted (and would never get) the respect she once had. At the other end of the Hollywood food chain, Burnham's Joe was just that, a regular Joe. He wasn't seeking to storm and then preside over the movie world, he just wanted to get his car back, to sell another script, and to date someone who wasn't so Cleopatra-like.
From start to finish, it's a tragic story, both in its conclusion and in its depiction of someone who confused the immortality of her screen identity with the mortality of her flesh and bone life. Though lighthearted scenes temper the story, they don't mitigate the futility of railing against the passage of time, not to mention against the displacing effect of technology. It's easy to see why the film version was voted one of the best films ever made: the characters could have been created by Sophocles, the story seismically spirals into despair, and the themes resonate to the present day. With this production, it's equally easy to see how effectively the characters, story, and themes translate to the real time of the stage.
The production's final two performances are on Sunday, July 28, at 2pm and 7pm. For more information, please visit www.musical.org.