By Beki Pineda
SUNSET BOULEVARD. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; book and Lyrics by Christopher Hampton; directed by Craig Bond and Evgueni Mlodik. Produced by Vintage Theatre (1468 Dayton St., Aurora) through May 29. Tickets available at 303-856-7830 or www.vintagetheatre.org.
Long before I had ever seen any version of this show, I had fallen deeply in love with its lyrical, haunting music. “Surrender,” “With One Look,” “New Ways to Dream”—all thrilling melodies and soaring lyrics. These songs by Webber have not penetrated the public consciousness as deeply as his melodies from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but their languid beauty and compelling images are as memorable. There are certain combinations of notes that will forever trigger the emotions of longing, nostalgia, forgiveness and joy that these songs convey.
This production captures the beauty of the music and the poignancy of the story. Casting opera singer Marcia Ragonetti as Norma Desmond, the silent-movie star who couldn’t make the transition into talkies, gives full voice to the beauty of the music. She captures both the arrogance and the vulnerability of the faded star. Her pushy diva personality falls to the wayside during a brief visit to her old movie studio, where she sadly reveals her longing to return to the old days in “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” Her childlike delight in pleasing the younger man who enters her life comes out in “The Lady’s Paying” (for a new wardrobe for him). She creates a well-rounded and complete Norma.
I’ve seen Drew Hirschboeck bring many roles to life (most recently the cold-blooded killers in ROPE and VERONICA’S ROOM), but it’s clear that past roles have been preparing him to become Joe Gillis. Joe is the screenwriter who accidentally wanders into Norma’s mansion and, because of convenience and a little larceny, allows himself to be talked into staying to edit her screenplay. A creature of the Hollywood mentality, Joe knows how to look out for himself. But as jaded as his outlook may be, he is still humane, empathic, and able to feel both affection and love— just not for the same woman. Drew’s portrayal gives us all sides of Joe—the Joe that wants to assert his independence but enjoys sitting by the pool. The Joe that feels sorry for Norma and allows himself to get sucked into her drama, but also feels genuine love for Betty, his writing partner. He’s a tormented character whose fate was sealed the moment he drove onto Sunset Boulevard.
A minor but important character is Max, Norma’s manservant, who understands her so well and has been by her side since she was a child star. Wes Munsil plays Max with dignity and deference. It’s nice to see Wes step out of the ensemble and display his singing chops. Newcomer Miranda Byers takes on the role of the wide-eyed innocent Betty Schaefer who, in the course of writing a screenplay with Joe, falls in love with him. Her normalcy provides a strong contrast to the craziness Joe lives with in Norma’s world. It’s no wonder he responds so quickly to her fresh-faced appeal and lack of deceit.
The supporting cast seems at times to be too many for the small Vintage stage, which leads to really crowded crowd scenes. But they all do their part in moving the story forward to its inevitable conclusion. The audience sees the end of the drama at the very beginning of the show; then the script goes back to tell the story back to that point.
The simplified set designed by Tobias Harding and constructed by Jeff Jesmer almost pulls off the elegance of Norma’s mansion. Understanding that “spacious” is difficult in a space with these dimensions, the solutions found for the script’s needs were impressive. Also impressive was the anonymous loan of an authentic 1952 MG as Norma’s in-demand car, which provides a real “wow” moment for the audience.
Also on the Wow side are the absolutely beautiful costumes provided for Norma. Each outfit tops the next, and I lost count somewhere around 10 or 12. Kudos to Debbie Faber for her finds and creations.
All in all, this is a lovely way to spend an evening—letting the melodies of Sir Andrew transport you back to the memories of a classic movie script recreated by a talented cast. You’ll walk away humming and fulfilled.
Wow factor: 8.5