Good voices highlight an otherwise lacking revival of “Sunset Boulevard” currently at the Music Theatre of Connecticut in Norwalk. The intimate theatre is not an ideal venue for a big Broadway musical like this, but MTC has come through before with similar productions in scaled down versions like “Falsettoland” and “Ragtime”. “Sunset Boulevard”, however, is not really a show that should be produced on the cheap.
With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and based on the classic 1950 film by Billy Wilder, “Sunset Boulevard” finds struggling Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (an excellent Trevor Martin) newly hired by aging silent film star Norma Desmond (Elizabeth Ward Land). Norma is well past her prime living in the delusion that she is ready for a new film venture. She’s written a screenplay and hires Joe first as her editor and then as her lover. Joe’s ambivalence about their relationship and Norma’s unwillingness to let go leads to violence, madness and death.
The musical was first and foremost designed as a showcase for a Broadway diva of a certain age (Elaine Page, Patti LuPone, Glenn Close) and it was the sheer force of the personality of that star that made “Sunset Boulevard” work. There are only two songs of any note in the show and both are sung by Norma: “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”. The remaining score is bland even though Mr. Martin can probably make a case for his strongly sung rendering of the title song. There’s still a question, though, of “why” with this show. Like many recent musicals derived from popular films (“Tootsie”, “Rocky” and “Mrs. Doubtfire” come to mind), there’s really no reason to tinker with Wilder’s film noir masterpiece.
This is abundantly clear at MTC where the cozy theatre is far from the ideal venue needed to reflect the outsized acting and faded Hollywood glamour of “Sunset Boulevard”. Lindsay Fuori’s scenic design doesn’t begin to suggest this lost world and relies instead on a simple raised platform and some red curtains. A scaled down “Ragtime” a few seasons back worked fine for the theatre, but “Sunset Boulevard” demands much more. Norma’s Gothic home is almost another character in the show, but it is nowhere to be found at MTC.
To their credit, however, MTC has an accomplished cast in the major roles beginning with Martin whose cynical swagger and powerful singing makes you wish you were seeing him in a better vehicle. Land makes for a sexy Norma (nicely costumed by Jimm Halliday) and she sells her two signature songs with aplomb. If she seemed to run down a little by act two at Sunday’s matinee, it may be the result of a long weekend of challenging performances. James Patterson, as Norma’s ever loyal manservant Max, has a booming operatic voice and he nails the dignified servitude that defines his role. The other cast members work hard but the roles pretty much define “thankless” and their several Hollywood babble songs are interchangeable and forgettable.
Credit director Kevin Connors for attempting this ambitious project and, with musical director David John Madore in fine form, everything pretty much sounds as it should here. (I do question, however, if Connors really needed all four of Norma’s visiting haberdashers to be flamboyantly gay?) An admirable attempt to be sure, but despite valiant efforts from a game company, this is still a rather dim “Sunset”.
“Sunset Boulevard” continues at the Music Theatre of Connecticut, 509 Westport Avenue in Norwalk, Connecticut through October 2. Masks are required at all performances. For further information, call the box office at: 203.454.3883 or visit: www.musictheatreofct.com.
Tom Holehan is one of the founders of the Connecticut Critics Circle, a frequent contributor to WPKN Radio’s “State of the Arts” program and the Stratford Crier and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: email@example.com. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.