Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - November 12, 2010

Bravo to 'Boulevard'

Palo Alto Players take on Andrew Lloyd Webber and a Hollywood masterpiece

by Karla Kane

A struggling writer, a delusional former film star and a decaying mansion in one of L.A.'s swankiest neighborhoods are center stage in "Sunset Boulevard" — both the classic 1950 film noir and the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical based on it. The musical is now on stage locally, presented by Palo Alto Players.

In this tale, unsuccessful screenwriter Joe Gillis, disillusioned and impoverished in the cutthroat Hollywood scene circa 1950, is fleeing his creditors. He stumbles upon the crumbling Sunset Boulevard palace of Norma Desmond, once the glamorous toast of Roaring '20s Tinseltown, now an aging recluse.

Norma vacillates between the real world of crushing loneliness and despair and a demented fantasy world in which she is still the silent queen of the silver screen. Feeding her delusions is her devoted manservant Max, to whom there may be more than meets the eye.

Norma shows Joe an outlandish script she's been penning as her comeback vehicle, and desperate Joe, seizing an opportunity to cash in on her immense wealth, agrees to serve as editor. While Norma plots her return to stardom, she also develops romantic feelings for Joe, who is caught up in her web of luxury and madness. When a relationship springs up between him and perky Paramount staffer Betty Shaefer, Joe tries to escape Norma's clutches — with fatal results. When a show starts with a corpse floating in a swimming pool, you know there probably won't be a traditional happy ending.

The film version of "Sunset Boulevard" has a script full of snappy, memorable lines ("I am big. It's the pictures that have gotten small," "We had faces then"), and the theatrical version contains many of the best ones. Don Black and Christopher Hampton's book and lyrics are a well-done homage to film director and writer Billy Wilder's original.

The music is not one of Webber's top scores; it can be repetitive and some tunes seem like they could have been lifted from his earlier "Evita." Still, it's generally melodic, moody, powerful and sophisticated, switching into tricky time signatures and sweeping motifs. I especially appreciated the way the entire sound shifts from haunting symphonic and cinematic music during the Desmond mansion-set scenes to smaller, jazzy modern sounds during scenes featuring Joe and his young friends. This sets the tone for the juxtaposition of the two worlds very effectively.

The opening number, "Let's Have Lunch," embodies the phony, opportunistic L.A. industry vibe, while the lilting "New Ways to Dream" pays tribute to the glamour and magic of the movies. The entire score maintains a film noir feel, important for a work not only based on but about the golden age of cinema. Other highlight songs include "This Time Next Year" and "Too Much in Love to Care."

A few microphone glitches had me momentarily waxing Norma-like for the imagined olden days of pre-miked, pre-Wi-Fi-interference shows (they had voices then) but the set and lighting crews do a good job given the limitations of the small Lucie Stern Theatre. Especially delightful is the clever opening sequence, which displays the show's credits in silent-movie-style title cards across a screen.

Norma Desmond could be considered the ultimate diva role, and Menlo Park native Annmarie Martin excels in it. As befitting "the greatest star of all," as Norma is called, she's provided with numerous big songs, the standout being "As if We Never Said Goodbye." Ashley Simms, too, is marvelous as Joe, with a lovely voice and easygoing charm.

Russ Bohard is both creepy and noble as Max, with a powerful bass-vocal performance. Courtney Hatcher is quite good as well in the role of Joe's earnest and naive Paramount paramour Betty, although a fake-looking wig distracted from her performance at times.

Simms' Joe and Martin's Norma both seem softer and more sympathetic here than in the film, which is sharper and more darkly comic than its on-stage counterpart. Joe is less jaded wise guy, more traditional leading man, while Norma is less grotesque and more vulnerable.

Part of the great pleasure of the film is that it's a Hollywood skewering of Hollywood itself, which is somewhat lost when presented in a theater format. The musical may never gain the classic status of the movie.

Nevertheless, the story and feel translate well, and the Palo Alto Players provide a worthy adaptation of an enduringly fascinating tale. This production is — you knew this line was coming — ready for its close-up.

What: "Sunset Boulevard," a musical presented by Palo Alto Players

Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto

When: Through Nov. 21, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m.

Cost: Tickets are $32, with some discounts available for students, seniors and groups.

Info: Call 650-329-0891 or go to http://paplayers.org .

Comments

Posted by Greg, a resident of Community Center
on Nov 14, 2010 at 1:22 pm

Sadly, this is a mess. Where should I begin?

The sound design is so unbalanced that the chamber-sized orchestra drowns out the acoustically enhanced performers. Miscues in lighting, coupled with downright poor design choices, are simply too blatant to ignore. Recitative passages alternate with straight dialogue for no discernable reason to the point of distraction. And with the exception of a few songs, none are moving, let alone memorable.

The two leads, who were most likely chosen for their exceptional vocal acumen, approach the material from two jarringly different styles. It's hard to imagine a more astounding casting misstep!

Annmarie Martin, despite possessing a wonderful voice of show-stopping potential, is wildly uneven in all facets of her performance. She appears lost, as demonstrated by jarring fits of intensity, all the while clumsily feigning either a Mid-Atlantic or West Coast dialect. One wonders if the character equally perplexed the director!

Ashley Simms, blessed with an oral instrument of pleasant melodious range and warm timbre, is just too immature to play a role that demands such obvious gravitas. While no one expects him to fill the shoes of a William Holden, one cannot fathom why anyone would find him well suited for the part.

On a more positive note, a strong supporting turn, both in singing and acting skill, is thankfully delivered by the sonorous baritone Russ Bohard. Unlike his fellow cast mates, he has a clear grasp of the world his laconic character inhabits and his place within it. Bravo! And honorable mention must be given to the artful set and costume design.

While I wholeheartedly encourage continuing support of the good works typical of the Palo Alto Players, this is not a representative sample of that laudable tradition. Reluctantly, I must recommend that one consider an investment of time and dollars elsewhere.


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