Stage Review: No roadmap to 'Sunset Boulevard'

'Boulevard' loses identity

Something about the character of Norma Desmond can only be taken seriously in the eerie and suspenseful realm of film noir. When we first meet her in Billy Wilder's 1950 gauzy black and white film "Sunset Boulevard," she removes her sunglasses to reveal a pair of rattlesnake eyes glaring from a face endlessly contorted by resentment, rage, bitterness and ambition. It is the face that launched a thousand drag queens.

As it turns out, over-the-top emotional instability doesn't necessarily translate into great musical theater. This irony of ironies plays out in Playhouse on the Square's confused and uneven production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 musical adaptation of "Sunset Boulevard," running through Feb. 17.

In basing his musical almost word-for-word from the movie script, Lloyd Webber was aiming for a gothic homage to hardboiled Hollywood eccentricity.

Actor Justin Asher, in the role of a penniless screenwriter hired (or perhaps seduced) by Desmond to re-write her dreadful comeback screenplay, brings that sort of cool 1950s detachment to both his demeanor and his from-the-gut singing. He's as real as it gets in this production.

But an awkward conflict in tone emerges when Carla McDonald descends the staircase as Norma Desmond, arms perpetually voguing in what appears to be ancient Egyptian semaphore. Dressed in a gold-spotted frock and black turban, she could either be the glamorous former silent film star clinging to her glory days or a clairvoyant en route to a seance.

Lloyd Webber makes it even harder to keep a straight face as Desmond plunges into a song about her dead chimpanzee.

McDonald, a brilliant comedienne in so many Playhouse musicals, finds herself in the unusual position of trying not to be deliberately funny, though she clearly struggles with the absurdity of Desmond's histrionics. Where is director Robert Hetherington's hand in getting the cast on the same page?

More importantly, what does this musical want to be? Drama? Comedy? Parody?

Originally scored for a large orchestra, Lloyd Webber's music wants to evoke the lush orchestral sweep of old film music. Thinned down in Playhouse's pit, the already melodramatic tunes often cross into schmaltz.

Critics of Lloyd Webber's music will have a field day with "Sunset Boulevard," which shifts back and forth from slightly meatier themes in Desmond's mansion to the repetitive musical backdrop of scenes in which young film industry workers mingle in cafes and at house parties. It's anyone's guess how Lloyd Webber confused the era of bebop and Sinatra with leftover melodies from "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."

Jimmy Humphries' expressionistic set frames Desmond between enormous movie posters bearing her name. Her youthful likeness is projected on a screen behind her. It exaggerates her celebrity and ego without saying much about her mental state. She becomes cartoonish.

If the movie is a sophisticated study of a woman's ego-driven decent into madness, this musical production is a celebration of a famous caricature.

A more flamboyant director could really make "Sunset Boulevard" what it seems destined to be: musical theater pushed over the edge of credulity. Commit to its artifice, its melodramatic music and its grotesque Norma Desmond (by putting a real drag queen in the role). At the very least, we'll laugh instead of wonder why Lloyd Webber thought this show was a good idea.

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