Billy Wilder’s film classic, Sunset Boulevard, is a Hollywood tragedy of operatic proportions. There were several early attempts to bring the story of a Hollywood hack who stumbles into an opportunistic relationship with a faded screen star to the stage, but it took Andrew Lloyd Webber to succeed where others had failed.
It’s an ambitious choice for Sonoma Arts Live. Limitations of space and budget forced Director Carl Jordan to adhere to some of the show’s original, experimental staging. He also utilizes film clips and projections to give a sense of time and place that the sparsely-furnished stage cannot.
The show opens with the deceased Joe Gillis (Michael Scott Wells) explaining how he ended up facedown in the pool of former silent screen star Norma Desmond (Dani Innocenti Beem). Avoiding creditors, the down-on-his-luck Gillis drives onto her property. When she discovers Gillis is a screenwriter, she latches on to him to work on a screenplay that will mark her glorious return to the screen. It’s not long before Desmond latches onto him for even more, much to the consternation of Desmond’s imperious butler Max (Tim Setzer) and Gillis’ potential paramour Betty (Maeve Smith).
Beem, a proven musical-comedy performer, powerfully delivers in the big musical numbers but has difficulty modulating her performance for the show’s smaller moments. She gets laughs where there should be none. Setzer, another performer known for his musical comedy stylings, completely subjugates those instincts and becomes the true heart of the show, but the truth is that it’s hard to root for any of these characters.
Years of Carol Burnett spoofs may have trained the audience to expect camp, but there’s no excuse for the show’s authors inserting a misguided scene involving a group of tailors prancing and swishing across the stage as they dress Gillis. The pungent point of the scene is lost amongst the mincing. Haven’t we moved past the point of using effeminate men as a source for “ha, ha, look at them” comedy?
Sunset Boulevard always seemed like an odd choice for a musical adaptation, but no odder than a board game or comic strip. It may be more accessible to fans of the film or Sir Andrew’s other works, but any fan of live musical theater can rejoice in its return to Sonoma.