There has been an odd trend taking place in the world of musical theater over the years: adapting popular films into musicals. I don’t quite understand it myself; I assume one could argue it harkens back to the early days of Hollywood, when it was building a name for itself. Studios would take from the stage and throw onto the screen to help drum up interest, with a familiar audience and usually resounding result: “West Side Story” in ‘61, “My Fair Lady” ‘64, and “The Sound of Music” in ‘65, all the way to “Chicago” ‘in 02. Some films based off of successful staged musicals go on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s that name value, that air of, “Oh, I know how this one ends,” which helps draw the audience to the theater like a moth to a flame—or if one is unlucky, to the bug zapper. I take nothing away from the ability to look at a work and reimagine it in a new medium, Hell just look at “The Lion King.” Though, does the world really need “Means Girls: The Musical”? I’m sure there are still a few actors who wished the role of Spider-Man had stayed on the big screen.
Opera House Theatre Company continues their summer season on historic Thalian Hall stage with the musical “Sunset Boulevard,” directed by Ray Kennedy. The show is based off the brilliant film-noir classic by Billy Wilder. Unfortunately, like the career of the lost legend Norma Desmond, the production’s entertainment value fades into obscurity quickly as well. The play itself has interesting qualities about it, yes. It also has a big name connected to it: Andrew Lloyd Webber. At times it comes off like it crawled from the mind of David Lynch. Though none of its unsettling themes are ever hit upon hard enough; it’s as if the production was trying to lean away from the darkness inhabiting it, rather than into it. Mixed with an aimless pace and leads who don’t anchor the show, this sunset putters out against the horizon instead of basking over it.
With the raising of the curtain, the audience is faced with a silhouette figure standing like a specter among the chaotic hustle of a crime scene. Revealed to be down on his luck, wanna-be screenwriter Joe Gillis (Eric Johann) is our story’s unreliable narrator. He has been spending the last few months of his life as the (cough) house boy for the once-revered but now forgotten star of the silent screen, Norma Desmond (Cassandra Vallery). The show’s action slings back six months prior, before the fated Gillis ever meets an unhinged Desmond. Through the number “Let’s Have Lunch,” the back-stabbing and false smiles that made up the Golden Age of Hollywood are put on full display. It’s also here where the wheels of the production begin to shake off the tracks.
There is a manic energy to how it is blocked and rightfully so, but it comes across as less of a controlled burn and more a fire about to go wild—a pattern that continues. Anytime the show cuts from the tightening spider web that is the Desmond estate, back to the Hollywood Hills studio and Gillis’s old life, the show loses a lot of its built tension. It’s almost as if the play’s writers thought, Well this scene is in the movie, better put a song to it. Numbers like “This Time Next Year” are pure filler, like most of this show’s winded numbers.
Gillis finds himself in Desmond’s web after running afoul two debt collectors. What ensues is an interesting car chase on stage, done to a full effect by a smart use of flashlights. Seeking refuge in an opened garage, on the titled Blvd., our two leads come in contact, but the moment of grandeur falls flat.
In fact, any time Desmond makes an appearance, it lacks any type of gravitas, mystique and presence; the femme fatale of the noir story lacks allure. Her entrances should be grand. Vallery can certainly sing the role and shows off impressive pipes with numbers like “Once Upon a Time” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” It’s the performance of Desmond wherein issues arise; never does it come across as a woman lost to her delusions. Her vignettes fall between the songs and are more afterthoughts, something to get through, to move along to the next number, to wow and distract the audience with her voice. The role of Norma Desmond is such a rich one, so to see its full pathos fall flat is unfortunate. It also doesn’t help that whenever she does appear on stage, the set (or lack thereof) does her no favors. All her dramatics are telegraphed and ruin the air she would had brought to the room.
Johann’s Gillis doesn’t fare much better. If we are all the heroes of our own stories, then it’s a bit of luck that Gillis is a storyteller or at least passes himself off as one. The man is a con artist, lost in the Land of Opportunity, and living as another cast-off in the City of Dreams. He gets by with a big smile and his hands out. Johann serves the role well-enough but brings such aloofness to it, no real consistency can be found from scene to scene. It affects the overall performance. Gillis finds himself caught in the middle of a struggle between living a life of haves over a life of have-nots; Johann’s performance finds itself similarly stuck somewhere in the middle.
The supporting roles are what bring glimmers of light to the production. Coleman Cox’s Betty Schaeffer is a stand-out as a studio script editor who also aspires to be a screenwriter and optimistically teams up with Gillis. Coleman brings such an earnest kindness to the role of Betty, the audience believes and understands her unending want to help Gillis. During the heart-cracking number “Girl Meets Boy,” Cox’s love for an underdog’s story is captured. As well, her voice fills Thalian Hall just perfectly.
Not surprisingly, the strongest support the show has happens to be the strongest support in Desmond’s life as well. Her faithful butler, Max von Mayerling, is brought to ghoulish life by George Domby. He’s so creepily possessed by the role, it allows for the disturbing nature of the play to finally flow free. Honestly, Domby’s Max would perfectly fit among the other residents of Twin Peaks. His loving and unbinding servitude toward Desmond gives off an unsettling vibe of Dracula’s madman slave, Renfield. His ability to just appear on stage truly embodies the old saying, “The walls have ears.” His voice carries a forebodingly deep melody to the song “The Greatest Star of All,” which prepares the audience for the madness they should be about to witness. Within the storm that is this production, he is a welcomed relief.
The tech aspects of the production are … well, thanks to sound designer John Deveaux, the audience can properly hear the cast when singing and speaking. The set does nothing to create the busy world of Hollywood or the dust-covered mausoleum of Norma Desmond’s home. It doesn’t pay enough attention to details, so it’s very easy to spot areas where the paint job on it isn’t completed. Going back to lack of dramatic entrances, the egregiously bare set does not evoke a sense of wonder about Desmond’s self-made museum. While the lighting design believes it is doing more than it is, it usually acts against itself. In a certain moment, effects destroy each other; a spotlight is cast upon Desmond during her failed return to the studio, but due to the lights coating the stage, the spotlight is lost. From design to execution, the tech aspects are amiss and are huge anchors to the play, dragging it down.