Eric Schaeffer, the Artistic Director of Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia has been in the forefront of taking the giant spectacle musicals of the late 1970's through the 1990's and stripping them down to their basic dramatic potential using the larger of the two versatile spaces, the Max at the Signature Theatre complex. Previous seasons have seen productions of Sweeney Todd (although Mr. Schaeffer did a small Sweeney at the Gunston Center for the Arts years ago), Les Miserables and Showboat repurposed mostly to great success. Now he turns his sight on another show in which the elaborate set design in the original West End and Broadway productions was just as much a part of the show as the script, music and the actors.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Blvd is based on the noir film of 1950. This tale of a cynical, washed up screenwriter and his deadly encounter with a delusional silent screen legend was a very powerful film starring William Holden, Erich von Stroheim and the amazing Gloria Swanson. It very famously opened with the corpse of the star of the film floating in a swimming pool, narrating the story from the grave. Challenges involved in staging Sunset Blvd., include car chases, a 1920's luxury automobile arriving at the gates of Paramount Studios and one of the most amazing stage effects The Thespian has ever witnessed on stage. In the original production, which The Thespian saw on the West End in 1994, Norma Desmond's elaborate house set rose up to permit a second scene, a rousing 1950's New Year's Eve party to be played simultaneously underneath it. During this sequence, the climatic moments of act one, the dialogue takes place at the New Year's Eve party, while Norma, under the watchful eyes of her manservant, Max, gets drunk, ascending and descending her famous staircase and finally attempting suicide. The Thespian's reaction to this spectacle was to desire to watch the show again, from a perch backstage to be able to watch the mechanics of this marvelous set. How on earth would Mr. Schaeffer stage these scenes in the boxy Max space? Very well indeed.
Sunset Blvd is the story of Joe Gillis, a Hollywood screenwriter who has been around the block long enough to have a small amount of success. However, he is experiencing a creative and financial stall. He can't sell his latest screenplay and he is deeply in debt. During a meeting at Paramount Pictures he meets Betty Schaefer, a young script reader with ambitions of her own. Miss Schaefer tells Joe exactly what's wrong with his script and offers to help him rewrite it. Before he can take her up on this he ends up having to leave the studio when two thugs arrive to repossess his car. A chase ensues, after a blown tire, Joe ends up stashing his car in the garage of an estate on Sunset Blvd. There he is bizarrely welcomed as if he was expected to arrive. It turns out that he is mistaken for an undertaker, by the servant Max and the mistress of the mansion, screen legend Norma Desmond. Joe becomes witness to the funeral of a beloved pet. When Norma discovers that Joe is a screenwriter she eagerly latches on to him to help her shape her own script, her hoped for comeback film, an adaptation of the biblical tale of Salome, with herself as the teenaged lead. Joe agrees lured by the prospect of money to pay his debts and the generosity of Miss Desmond who as the relationship develops heaps lavish gifts on Joe. It is a tale of moral corruption and enabling disillusionment that will lead to the tragedy shown in the opening moments of the musical.
While the score is not one of Lord Lloyd Webber's best, it has some very gorgeous thematic movements and songs. The best known pieces are Norma's opening number With One Look and the title tune. As with most of his later scores, there is an inordinate amount of repetition of musical themes. However, it does lessen over the course of the evening.
Overall, Mr. Schaffer's direction is outstanding. He manages to effectively stage the emotional beats of the four main characters. Daniel Conway's scenic design is quite clever and effective. We enter the theater to what appears to be a warehouse-like soundstage, yet as the evening progresses it transforms itself into Norma's elaborate mansion, complete with the famous staircase or the set of Cecil B. DeMille's latest extravaganza. Those difficult moments of staging are eased by the use of film projection. The only difficulty is the staging of the dual New Year's Eve scenes. They do take place simultaneously as they did in the original production. However, if you are seated house right, downstage left you will have difficulty seeing Norma and Max's scenes which are staged upstage and are blocked from view for those seats. Kathleen Geldard has created simply stunning costumes, particularly her designs for Norma. The fabric choices are brilliant and move with a depth of sumptuous luxury without overwhelming the actress they clothe. Jon Kalbfleisch has assembled a talented 20-piece orchestra that shows off the lushness of the score and inspires grand vocals from the cast.
Susan Derry is a spunky Betty Schaefer. As the least fleshed out of the four main characters, she manages to create a complete personality in her scenes and rises dramatically when her character is confronted with the horror of the double life of the man she has allowed herself to fall in love with.
Ed Dixon is a powerful presence as Max Von Mayerling, faithful to a fault in protecting his Madame. He sings a emotional The Greatest Star of All captivating the audience with his love of Norma.
Unfortunately D.B. Bonds appears miscast as Joe Gillis. During most of the performance he seems passive, just a handsome leading man instead of the weary man Hollywood has kicked around who is willing to exploit Norma's dependence on him for his own personal gain. Only during two scenes the biting title tune and the confrontational What's Going On Joe does he rise to the emotional occasion and show flashes of who Joe Gillis should be.
Yet, do not let that weak link stop you from seeing one of the brilliant performances on the DC area stages this early 2011. That would be the amazing Florence Lacey. Ms. Lacey's Norma is commanding, manipulative, vulnerable and delusional all sometimes in the same scene. Norma has been played by many of the stage's great musical actresses and Ms. Lacey has earned a place amongst them. The moment she enters the stage, heartbreakingly grieving her beloved pet then turning on her star quality to command the stage in her bravura With One Look, Ms. Lacey captures the essence of Norma Desmond's power to seduce her audiences. To put it like Max, she becomes The Greatest One of All.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Blvd. will be performed in The Max at Signature Theatre in Arlington Virginia through February 13, 2011. For tickets and additional performance information please visit www.signature-theatre.org.