At the Porchlight Music Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago – The first thing a theater needs to successfully revive “Sunset Boulevard” is a star quality Norma Desmond, just like a revival of “Hamlet” requires a star quality melancholy Dane. In 1993 and 1994, the London and Broadway productions of “Sunset Boulevard” featured Patti LuPone and Glenn Close, both international stars. For its revival, the Porchlight theater hired Chicago’s own Hollis Resnik, the obvious choice to play the larger than life Desmond. It will surprise no area theatergoer that Resnik carries the show.
“Sunset Boulevard” began as Billy Wilder’s motion picture about a faded silent picture movie star about 1950 living in Los Angeles in a world of delusion and isolation, refusing to accept that she is washed up in films. Blindly she plans a triumphant reappearance in movies. She rejects the term “comeback.” For her, the proper word is “return.”
“Sunset Boulevard” is recounted by a down-on-his-luck movie screenwriter named Joe Gillis, who we learn in the opening scene is dead. How he came to his violent demise is the major narrative thread in the show. We first meet Gillis as he flees a pair of car repossessors, driving in his flight into the estate of Norma Desmond. The woman lives with her faithful butler in a mansion out of the Addams family. She is in the process of writing a screenplay about Salome that she is certain will reopen the door to the stardom of her youth. Norma hires Gillis as her script doctor, and he gradually eases into a life of comfort and money as her lover and all round toy boy. Desmond soon becomes too big a handful for Gillis, with her demanding outer personality masking an emotional vulnerability that finally leads to insanity.
Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the score for “Sunset Boulevard.” It has a couple of numbers that approach the plush romanticism of the man’s best music, but there are no hits like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” “Memories,” or “The Music of the Night.” In truth, “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t a particularly good musical though it did run for 2½ years on Broadway (and still lost money). The show is a particular challenge for Porchlight, which presents the production at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, an intimate space with limited technical facilities. The Broadway and London productions rode on elaborate sets and dazzling lighting and special effects that partially distracted viewers from the weakness of the show’s book and score.
The Porchlight staging by Michael Weber gives the physical production its best shot, especially a long staircase Norma uses for her melodramatic entrances and exits. Weber creatively orchestrates the large cast of 25, but the show’s minimalist visual look cuts into opportunities to recreate a convincing world of movies in their heyday (1950, before the depredations of television) as well as the nostalgia of Norma’s lost world of 1920’s Hollywood.
Gillis drifts into a love affair with a young screenwriter named Betty Schaefer but their affair provides little dramatic fire. The Gillis character has much more stage time than Norma and the show’s dramatic temperature declines every moment she is absent. Resnik has been a diva on Chicagoland stages for four decdes, though she has been relatively inactive in recent seasons locally. She has always been noted for playing larger than life characters, occasionally a little too fulsomely for some viewers. But Resnik nails Norma Desmond, deftly sidestepping any descent in camp acting or the grotesque. Norma lives in a dream world that strains credibility but Resnik’s character is no cartoon loony tune. In her singing and acting, an unstable, fragile, and often laughable woman earns our sympathy without turning into a star turn caricature.
Resnik beautifully sells Norma’s yearning for the good old days when she reigned in Hollywood and her passion to reenter that world. Her Norma may be maddening and sometimes pathetic but on the Porchlight stage the character still wins our sympathy, no small achievement in a role that can easily lapse into overacting and operatic eye rolling. There is outrageous vanity in this Norma but also a genuine love of the movies, best captured in her aria “New Ways to Dream,” maybe the most successful number in the score.
Billy Rude does well in the demanding role of Joe Gillis, but he is a little young for a character who had taken plenty of hard knocks in life and should project the world weary cynicism and disenchantment of a character much older. As Max the butler, Larry Adams perfectly captures the stoic devotion that screens Norma from the harsh realities of her fantasy life. The highly talented Michelle Lauto does what she can with the thin role of Betty Schaefer. David Girolmo turns in a strong cameo as famous director Cecil B. DeMille, a real life Hollywood pioneer who survived into the sound era while Norma Desmond withered. The entire ensemble is filled with capable performers. Unfortunately, the score and book don’t offer many chances for glory.
The designers earn high marks for achieving as much as they do, so props to Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), Billy Morey (costumes), Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (lighting), Robert Hornbostel (sound), and Anthony Churchill (projections). Shanna Vanderwerker is the choreographer. Her dances are animated and the dancers are high energy, but this isn’t a dancing show and much of the dancing was high stepping movement that doesn’t accomplish much.
A seven-piece orchestra is conducted by Aaron Benham. Perhaps it was just my seat, almost underneath the musicians placed on a side stage balcony, but their playing too often swamped the singing on stage. Either the orchestra needs to play softer or the singers need to sing louder, but the sound balance on opening night urgently needed attention.
The Porchlight production deserves an A for effort, and Hollis Resnik alone is worth a visit to the show. We may never seen her, at age 62, in such a vocally rich and dramatically complex role again. “Sunset Boulevard” is no musical theater masterpiece but it does provide a forum for a career-topping performance.
‘Sunset Boulevard’ gets a rating of.
“Sunset Boulevard” runs through December 8 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn Street. Most performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 3:30 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at2 p.m. Tickets are 39$ to $66. Phone (773) 777-9884 or visit PorchlightMusicTheatre.org.