By Jean Lowerison | Theater Review
Sunset Boulevard — that storied street of heightened dreams and dashed hopes — is still home to Norma Desmond, a faded Hollywood goddess of the silent screen era who refuses to recognize that the industry has changed and she is not what she once was.
Desmond, first seen in Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 noir film “Sunset Boulevard,” became a Broadway musical heroine in 1994 in a show with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Glenn Close won a Tony Award as Desmond (and the show six others) for that production — though a snarker noted that a Best Musical win doesn’t mean much when only two are nominated.
Let’s admit it up front: “Sunset Boulevard” is not a great musical. Still, there’s entertainment value in Moonlight Stage Production’s sumptuous San Diego regional premiere, running through Sept. 2 under the assured direction of Larry Raben.
Robert J. Townsend, frequently seen on this stage, is excellent as starving writer Joe Gillis, the narrator and co-star of the piece. The plot has Gillis needing a job to pay off his car before those repossessors show up.
Joe finds tentative romance (as well as a writing partner) in Katie Sapper’s pert Betty Schaefer, who also helps him elude those bill collectors early on.
Gillis stumbles into Desmond’s path accidentally, only to find himself in the clutches of a needy former diva who doesn’t know the meaning of the word “surrender” (or “retire” or even “no”) — unless she’s using them. Dependency issues arise, as does Norma’s fragile sanity. When she says she wants Joe’s opinion on a screenplay she is writing, she means that opinion had better be to her liking. Soon Joe finds himself a near prisoner in that mansion.
But it’s Norma you’ve come to see, and she is played with impeccably high style (if a tenuous grip on reality) by Valerie Perri, who looks, acts and sings the part wonderfully.
Also in the Desmond orbit is Norma’s valet/protector Max von Mayerling, who turns out to have a pretty interesting history with her. Norman Large is excellent as Max, going above and beyond to keep her on as even a keel as possible.
This is a big production, with 24 actors and 23 musicians (under the capable direction of Kenneth Gammie), clever rented sets and costumes that won’t quit. (One notable exception: Norma’s spectacular costumes, built from scratch by Moonlight’s Renetta Lloyd.)
There are even projections of the Boulevard back in the day. They give a good feel for that behemoth up north that takes in talented youngsters, sometimes makes them stars for a time, and kicks them out the door when a newer/better model arrives.
There isn’t much plot, but there are plenty of amusing vignettes with actors, wannabe actors and those who may or may not employ them in songs like “Let’s Have Lunch” and “This Time Next Year,” and cynical songs about the business of movies in the title song (“Smile a rented smile/Fill someone’s glass/Kiss someone’s wife/Kiss someone’s ass/We do whatever pays the wages”).
“Sunset Boulevard” is, as the title song says, “swamped with every kind of false emotion.” But Perri’s Norma will likely convince you that her emotions are real, albeit outsized. This is, at heart, a very sad story.
—Jean Lowerison is a long-standing member of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle and can be reached at email@example.com.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.