Sunset Boulevard (Review)

Tale of Hollywood desperation and dementia gets a big-time patina

May 13, 2013 at 12:31 am
Laurie Schneider Brinkman (Norma Desmond) and Michael Shawn Starks (Joe Gillis)
Laurie Schneider Brinkman (Norma Desmond) and Michael Shawn Starks (Joe Gillis)

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, created in the mid-1990s was his last big show to have some measure of success, including a two-year run on Broadway. Even at that, however, the musical version of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film had a troubled stage history, opening in London in 1993 and the following year on Broadway. It is reported to have lost nearly $20 million, in part due several lawsuits by actresses cast then set aside for the role of the faded silent film star Norma Desmond.

But those losses were also the result of Sunset Boulevard’s Broadway production expenses — well over $700,000 per week. So it’s no small feat that Cincinnati Music Theatre, an all-volunteer community group, has pulled off a credible rendition of the sordid tale of Hollywood desperation and dementia. With a cast of 28 and ably staged by veteran director Skip Fenker, supported by a 16-musician orchestra conducted by Kendra Struthers, CMT’s Sunset Boulevard at the Aronoff Center’s Jarson Kaplan Theater gives the show a big-time patina.

David Zlatic designed a production — scenery, lighting in the style of film noir and a stream of well executed photographic and video projections in moody black-and-white — that works very well indeed, including Desmond’s mansion with a sweeping central staircase, as fading and unseemly as its owner. Elaine K. Michael’s costumes, featuring specific designs by Catherine Ross for Norma Desmond’s wardrobe, capture the necessary glitz of Hollywood.

The success of any production of Sunset Boulevard hinges on performers portraying Desmond and her “kept man,” Joe Gillis, a failed writer whom she holds hostage with her glamorous lifestyle and suffocating neediness. Gillis is meant to be a good 20 years younger than Desmond, who is described as a one-time silent film star hoping to make a comeback in 1950.

The difference between Laurie Schneider Brinkman and Michael Shawn Starks is not so obvious, although efforts have been made to age her and demonstrate her mental fragility and instability. Brinkman does that well, and she’s a powerhouse of a singer, especially the show’s signature number, “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” so it’s no big challenge to accept her as a delusional woman clinging to a past that everyone else barely remembers. Her mad scene at the end is convincing and moving.

Starks does not come across as two decades her junior, but he conveys a brash, hard-boiled attitude that works well in the show’s prologue as well as the title song, which opens Sunset Boulevard’s second act. His dilemma between having the good life delivered to him and being disgusted by a woman who tries to drag him into her fantasy world makes sense in Starks’ portrait. His cynical narration contrasts perfectly with her insistence on living in unsupported romantic memories.

Other roles in this production are capably handled, if less consequential. Wayne Wright is Max von Mayerling, Desmond’s butler and house manager (as well as her former director and husband …), who is stone-faced with occasional cracks of emotion. Bree Hunter Sprankle plays Betty Schaefer, an aspiring screenwriter who’s engaged to Joe’s best friend but attracted to Joe — a plot device that leads to Desmond’s final desperate act. Betty is an underwritten role, but Sprankle has a fine, fresh voice and spunky demeanor in several duets (“Girl Meets Boy,” “Too Much in Love to Care”) with Starks.

Because of its physical demands, Sunset Boulevard is seldom produced. CMT has a long track record of making such productions work (this is its 50th season), and this adds to that illustrious history. If you want to check this show off your musical theater bucket list, this one won’t disappoint you.

SUNSET BOULEVARD, presented by Cincinnati Musical Theatre, continues at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theatre through May 18.