Stage review: Pittsburgh CLO takes arresting, provocative trip down 'Sunset Boulevard'
Liz Callaway portrays silent screen siren Norma Desmond in Pittsburgh CLO's production of "Sunset Boulevard."
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Incessant happy endings can be a drag, right? Sometimes you like a good ... well, if not actually a cry, at least a gulp of melancholic sympathy.
Oops, I shouldn't give the ending away. But just about everyone I've talked to about "Sunset Boulevard" already seems to know Billy Wilder's famous 1950 Gloria Swanson-William Holden film noir of the same name, ending included, so for those people, it's already giving it away to say that this stage musical pretty slavishly tells the same story.
Oddly, I'm pretty sure I never saw the movie myself -- just another hole in my basic education, as my wife points out. Perhaps that's why I enjoy this Andrew Lloyd Webber (music), Don Black-Christopher Hampton (book, lyrics) musical stage adaptation so much, since I don't have to compare it to a masterpiece.
What I especially like is the music, which is primarily melodic, melodramatic schmaltz. There's nothing wrong with schmaltz in the right place. It fits perfectly here, because it channels those organ-heavy musical scores that accompanied the great silent film weepies. It almost feels through-composed, lifting the dialogue into emotional significance.
For the few of you who don't know the story, set in 1950 Hollywood, it begins with a death in a haunted mansion on Sunset Boulevard inhabited by Norma Desmond, a great (fictional, but with obvious parallels) star of silent films. She's been out of the public eye for two decades, but when it's said that "you used to be big," she replies, "I am big ... it's the pictures that got small."
She dreams of a return, abetted by Joe Gillis, a sardonic writer whom she inveigles into helping her work on a film version of the life of Salome -- a sexy teenager whom in her delusion she believes she can still portray in a silent film epic, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, no less. "We didn't need words," she says. "We had faces."
Joe takes on the job out of financial desperation and as an expression of his contempt for Hollywood, but he continues it out of growing sympathy for the addled star. He also gets involved with Norma's opposite, a young, idealistic writer, Betty, and they begin to collaborate on a very different kind of script. This gives the creators a chance to cut away from Norma's gloomy mansion to the world of ambitious young actors and writers, with Joe (who also serves as the musical's cynical narrator) the only connecting character.
A third world, seen briefly, is the dream factory of Paramount Studios, where reality and illusion intertwine. Eventually, Joe's two main worlds collide, and we are back to where the musical started, learning who it is who died.
The story queries stardom. Who is more to blame, the idolized or idolaters? (Cue obligatory allusion to Joe Paterno here.) Norma has been thrown on the dustheap in her 50s. What's wrong with us?
The star role is of course Norma Desmond, played here by Liz Callaway with a diva's desperation and a voice that soars in Mr. Lloyd Webber's Puccini-esque arias. You may recall the battle back in 1993-94, when the London star, Patti LuPone, was dumped in favor of the LA star, Glenn Close (who had the advantage of a tighter score and book), bringing the latter to Broadway. I saw them both (and also the revised national tour, which started in Pittsburgh in 1998), and all that Ms. Callaway lacks is a degree of crazy intensity. She certainly attracts our sympathy, leaving the stage at the end like Blanche DuBois, triumphant in delusion.
The bigger role is Joe, who seems to be on stage constantly. CMU grad Matthew Scott isn't obvious casting -- in place of the indolent good looks of some of his predecessors, he has a dark, edgy quality. But this serves Joe's cynicism well, and he is believable in both the plots he serves as a man torn between self-loathing and tentative hope.
Amanda Rose is a properly fresh-faced Betty (if not exactly 22), and Walter Charles, a Broadway veteran, is suitably lugubrious and in a way tragic as Max, her devoted servant, once a great director. For the rest, the CLO ensemble has fun as the young hopefuls.
Music director Tom Helm conducts a resonant 22-piece orchestra in its tour of the score, one of the best of Mr. Lloyd Webber's latter career, and Barry Ivan pulls off the usual CLO miracle in getting a big, complex show on its feet in just a week, including only a day and a half on stage. How does Van Kaplan and company do it?
One way is with the help of the professional Benedum crew. An essential part for decades has been Kenny Brannigan, whose upcoming retirement was celebrated Tuesday night, both pre- and post-show.
This is a big show, now given its CLO premiere with skill and an appropriately bruised heart.
First Published July 26, 2012 12:00 am