Book by Don Block based on the film by Billy Wilder
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Christopher Hampton
Directed by Sharon A. Wilcox
at The Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT through November 11
I’ll admit it. When Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the classic noir film Sunset Boulevard hit the U.S. in 1994, I geeked out. I attended the first preview on Broadway and was there for the closing curtain at the final performance two years later. I felt the score to be among the composer’s finest and the Gothic levitating set and opulent costumes put the “mega” in mega-musical.
At the dark heart of the production is Norma Desmond, the faded silent film star. Part Mary Pickford and part Medusa, Gloria Swanson’s uncanny performance in the 1950 movie is the stuff of Hollywood legend. In the musical, a parade of stars has dared to don Norma’s turban and glide down her swooping staircase. I myself had the pleasure of seeing Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Elaine Paige, Diahann Carroll and even Petula Clark tackle the part.
When I heard that the Warner Theatre was going to be the first community theatre in Connecticut to acquire the rights to produce the show, I decided to hightail it out to Torrington. Built in 1931 by Warner Brothers Studios, this cavernous, gilt-edged movie palace is indeed an ideal setting for this dark Hollywood tale. But, the big question is whether or not a community theatre can put on this show, originally capitalized at $13 million on Broadway, and not leave audiences feeling short-changed.
Happily, I can report that the production is by and large a solid rendering. While no one should enter the Warner expecting the level of opulence experienced on the Broadway stage, this Sunset Boulevard serves the material well. Director Sharon Wilcox has clearly seen or studied the New York staging as much of what is seen resembles the original with a few clever concessions due to budget constraints. In some instances, cast members are vocal dead ringers for the American Premiere Cast Recording. The production amply fills the cavernous Warner stage and feels right-sized for the mammoth space.
At the head of the pack for the cast is Dan Porri as Joe Gillis. The character undoubtedly has the most vocal work in the sung-through score and he handles the job beautifully. Although played a little more innocent and romantic than the usual jaded cynic, Porri commands the stage. Erin O’Launaigh is a charmer in the role of Betty Schaeffer, Joe’s eventual love interest. John Lino Ponzini is appropriately stiff and vocally impressive as Desmond’s erstwhile man servant, Max. Joe Harding’s booming Cecil B. Demille shows that it must have been a tough call between Harding and Ponzini as to who should get which part.
The production’s biggest challenge lies in the casting of Marilyn Olsen in the demanding central role. Ms. Olsen is a competent and capable actor, but she loses sight of Norma’s delusions and megalomania. The character is mapped out in the first scene: a turban-wearing, eccentric shut-in clinging to a dead monkey and claiming, “I AM big; it’s the pictures that got small!” Her portrayal is perhaps too sympathetic and Olsen doesn’t really become unhinged until her potent final scene.
The biggest difficulty is that Olsen is not able to meet the vocal heft the role requires. Whether due to poor vocal health or strain, she was not able to land many of the role’s signature arias. She can undoubtedly carry a tune, but she needs to carry the show, as well. While Matt Dettmer’s costuming for the rest of the cast is spot-on, his outfits for Ms. Olsen tend to be underwhelming for a woman still coasting on old Hollywood glamour and turban-charged self esteem. Olsen’s wig and outfits generally avoid the exotic and Baroque feel that the character requires.