Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Sunset Boulevard - ACT of CT

The production of Sunset Boulevard, which opened the 6th season at ACT of CT, continues the company’s success they had with last year’s rewarding staging of The Secret Garden.  While Sunset Boulevard is not my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, the show is given a grand production, with multiple stylized and sumptuous sets by Scenic Designer David Goldstein, luxuriant gowns and outfits crafted by Kurt Alger, and some smart directorial choices by Daniel C. Levine that keeps the show humming.


Pearl Sun and members of the cast of Sunset Boulevard.  Photo by Jeff Butchen.

The book of the show, by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, teeters towards the melodramatic as it faithfully follows the storyline from the Billy Wilder film of the same name.  The plot focuses on Norma Desmond, a faded movie star of the silent era and Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, cynic, and survivor of the broken Hollywood dream.  Through accidental circumstances, their paths cross.  She sees him as a vehicle to return to film stardom.  Conflicted at first, Joe, becomes seduced by the opulent lifestyle offered by Ms. Desmond.  Their partnership and apparent romance leads to tension, discord and, finally, tragedy. 


One of the key dramatic points of the musical is the age difference between Norma and Joe. In previous productions I’ve seen of the show, Ms. Desmond is portrayed as a woman in her mid-60’s so the relationship between her and a 30-ish Joe Gillis felt uncomfortable.  However, in the film, she is only 50.  In the late 1940’s, early 1950’s, 50 years old seemed…well, old.  Today, 50 is middle aged and women are vibrant and still accomplishing.  Getting back to ACT’s Sunset Boulevard, the casting of Pearl Sun as the recluse Norma Desmond is more in line with the original intentions of the movie producers.  It also makes the pairing of the two protagonists less awkward.  Ms. Sun is majestic in the role of Norma Desmond.  The actress strides with purpose and poise.  She brings an arrogance and privileged air to her portrayal, but she can also be girlish and so very frightened by her own shadow.  Ms. Sun has a beautiful and powerful voice.  Her rendition of two of the show’s signature songs –“With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – are captivating.

Pearl Sun and Michael Burrell in Sunset Boulevard.  Photo by Jeff Butchen.


Michael Burrell is superb as Joe Gillis.  He gives the character a swaggering braggadoccio with an undercurrent of self-loathing.  The actor, also with a fine singing voice, adroitly conveying his clashing emotions and motivations as he skulks through the worlds of Norma Desmond and the Hollywood underbelly.  The other main performers – George Xavier as Max Von Mayerling and Helen J. Shen as Betty Schaefer - are fine, but more problematic in their portrayals.  Xavier, with a haunting voice and manner, is a bit rigid in his demeanor, only showing the character’s potential at the musical’s finale.  Shen, in a role that is underwritten to begin with, does not add a lot of depth to her character.


The music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, contain some highly tuneful songs (see above) and also include such solid numbers as “This Time Next Year” and “The Perfect Year.”  The cynicism and hollowness of the Los Angeles movie scene are aptly rendered in the opening number, “Let’s Have Lunch” and Joe Gillis’ derisive rant in Act II’s title number.  Besides the forementioned songs, the overall score can seem repetitive with melodies frequently repeated.  The score is wonderfully orchestrated and performed by an 11-piece orchestra under the superb guidance of Music Director Bryan Perri.

Pearl Sun and members of the cast of Sunset Boulevard.  Photo by Jeff Butchen.


Director Daniel C. Levine has taken what is normally a large-scale show and skillfully downsized it for the confines of the ACT stage.  However, the interior of Norma’s memory-filled mansion and a boisterous movie soundstage are still resplendently rendered.  Changeovers are nimbly effected by positioning action in front of a drawn curtain.  This also keeps the pacing brisk and fluid.  Large cast settings, such as the opening scene at Paramount Studios, are a finely conceived  demonstration of controlled chaos.  The interactions between Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis are well-defined if somewhat perfunctory.


Sunset Boulevard, playing at ACT of CT in Ridgefield, through November 19.  Click here for dates, times and ticket information.

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