Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Sunset Boulevard - A Class Act from Start to Heart-rending Finish

Expecting to be jump started by a brisk and vivacious opening overture typical of many a musical production, I was pleasantly surprised by Andrew Lloyd Webber’s beautifully lyrical orchestral introduction to "Sunset Boulevard." Played exquisitely, by the way, by the impressive sounding Pittsburgh CLO Orchestra, the overture did have a fair share of moody and somber modulations, befitting the dark noir quality of the story line.
Webber also did some fine composing elsewhere in several songs new to me that left me wondering why they don’t have a more familiar ring and pop culture exposure. But more than just songs, the musical based on the classic Billy Wilder film of the same title also relies on sung dialogue in the manner of operatic recitatif to get its plot across. Initially my ear had difficulty making out the sung words, adequately electronically amplified by the production’s sound technicians, but after a brief aural adjustment on my part, I was soon in sync with an easy understanding of the actors’ sung words.
The play opens with the troubled story of unsuccessful screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who has high hopes of making the big time in Tinsel Town. Hounded by creditors, he escapes the repossession of his car after a fast chase by pulling it into the garage of a Beverly Hills mansion owned by fading film star Norma Desmond. Now in her fifties, she’s is hoping to make a comeback by writing a role for herself as a teenage Salome.
As the young screenwriter, Matthew Scott is energetic, despite his sea of troubles and lack of professional success as a writer, quick witted and viscerally seductive, a trait that soon captures the interest of the failing starlet. In exchange for favors and financial gain, he reluctantly takes on the job of rewriting Desmond’s ridiculously unreasonable script and eventually becomes her boy toy.
While the story starts out focusing on Gills, the real character in the limelight is Norma Desmond. Tony Award nominated (for "Merrily We Roll Along") Liz Callaway plays the star’s diva quality to the hilt with just enough panache not to be over the top. She’s also able to show her vulnerable side along with her sorrows and melancholic longing for the past though never surrendering to the inevitable ignominy of getting older and being considered ill suited for a role by a casting director.
Hopelessly lonely in her plush Sunset Boulevard mansion, she lives in a fantasy world and watches old films in which she starred each evening with her faithful butler, Max, until Gillis arrives to reawaken old dreams and new erotic possibilities.
Vocally, Callaway is as dazzling as the numerous extravagant costumes she wears, particularly in the moving "With One Look" and "New Ways to Dream." The latter is sung as a duet with Gillis, who has his own solo in the show’s somewhat lackluster title song, "Sunset Boulevard," which opens the second act.
Other great voices in the production include Walter Charles, who as Max, wows with "The Greatest Star of All," and Jeffrey Howell as legendary film director, Cecil B. DeMille, who delights the ear in a much too brief reprise of "Surrender."
Vocally as well as dramatically, Amanda Rose as Betty, Gillis’ true romantic interest, leaves nothing to be desired as she becomes ensnared in relationship that arcs from initial antagonism to a powerful mutual attraction.
With all the lavish costumes, set designer J, Branson’s wonderful rendering of Desmond’s mansion and obvious hard work that went into staging the production, you wonder why the short eight performance, six-day run isn’t a bit longer. Quality-wise, the show certainly merits it.
Speaking of merit, director Barry Ivan deserves credit for the smooth, seemingly seamless scene transitions that fluctuate between a movie set, Desmond’s domicile and several other locations. Under his supervision the show glides along nicely like a well oiled clock.
With no obvious flaws, the Pittsburgh CLO’s staging of "Sunset Boulevard" ends chillingly with the iconic "mad" scene in which Desmond is finally pushed over the edge, deliriously descends the staircase from her bedroom and utters the now classic line, "All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up."
It’s theatricality at its purest emotional essence.
"Sunset Boulevard," a production of the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, is at the Benedum Center, 237 Seventh Street in Pittsburgh, at 8 p.m. on July 26, 27 and 28, at 7:30 p.m. on July 29 and at 2 p.m. on July 28 and 29. Tickets range from $10 to $65.75. Phone 412-456-6666.