Review: “Sunset Boulevard” in Sonoma

Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard reeks of cynicism. The story of a hack Hollywood writer who stumbles into an opportunistic relationship with a faded silent screen star is a tragedy of operatic proportions.

The film’s star, Gloria Swanson, spent years trying to bring a radically altered musical version to the stage and no less a giant of American musical theatre than Stephen Sondheim took his shot at adapting it for Broadway. Andrew Lloyd Webber (Phantom of the Opera) finally brought the show to fruition in 1993 with a London production that culminated in a multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway run in 1994.   

Sunset Boulevard is an ambitious choice for Sonoma Arts Live. Limitations of space and budget forced director Carl Jordan to adhere to some of the show’s original, experimental staging concepts. He also utilizes film clips and projections to give a sense of time and place that the sparsely furnished stage cannot. The grand staircase featured in the film’s brutal climax has been reduced to five steps.

Dani Innocenti Beem as Norma Desmond, Michael Scott Wells as Joe Gillis

The show, like the movie, opens with the deceased Joe Gillis (Michael Scott Wells) explaining how he ended up face down in the pool of former silent screen star Norma Desmond (Dani Innocenti Beem). Trying to avoid getting his car repossessed, the down-on-his-luck Gillis drives onto the property where he is mistaken for a pallbearer expected to participate in a funeral for Desmond’s pet monkey. When she discovers Gillis is a screenwriter, she latches on to him to work on a screenplay that will mark her glorious return to motion pictures. With the prospect of earning several hundred dollars a week dangled before him, Gillis agrees. It’s not long before Desmond latches on to him for even more, which Gillis succumbs to, much to the consternation of Desmond’s imperious butler Max (Tim Setzer) and Gillis’ potential paramour Betty (Maeve Smith).

Beem, a proven musical-comedy performer, powerfully delivers in the big musical numbers but has difficulty modulating her performance for the show’s smaller moments. She gets laughs where there should be none. Setzer, another performer known for his musical comedy stylings, completely subjugates those instincts, allowing the slavishly-devoted Max to become the true heart of the show.

Maeve Smith as Betty, Michael Scott Wells as Joe Gillis

The truth is that it’s hard to root for any of these characters (though it’s always nice to see Norman Hall on stage, here as the very paternal Cecil B. DeMille, the only nonfictional character in the story.) Gillis, who seems to possess few scruples, is an anti-romantic lead. Wells, a likeable performer, works hard to capture Gillis’ cynicism but struggles against type. Smith shines as Betty, and would seem to earn the audience’s sympathy up until the point she reveals a willingness to dump her fiancé – and Joe’s best friend – for Joe.

By the time Norma Desmond snaps in the end, we realize there are no heroes in this story, just chewed-up victims of the Hollywood Dream factory. The show honors Wilder’s original intent, which makes a toe-tapping, show-tune-humming exit for the audience impossible.

The score was well-played by a five-piece orchestra located backstage under the direction of Ellen Patterson. I might suggest notching their volume down a bit as they frequently overpowered the singing. The ensemble pieces work well and there are some nice group numbers choreographed by Devin Parker Sullivan. Barbara McFadden does a fine job with period costuming, particularly with Norma’s frozen-in-time wardrobe.  

Years of Carol Burnett spoofs may have trained the audience to expect camp (hence some of the unexpected laughs), but there’s no excuse for the show’s authors inserting a misguided scene involving a group of tailors prancing and swishing across the stage as they dress Gillis. The pungent point of the scene is lost amongst the mincing and it is completely out-of-step with the rest of the show. If its intention was to provide comedy relief, it failed. Haven’t we moved past the point of using effeminate men as a source for “ha, ha, look at them” comedy? 

Sunset Boulevard always seemed like an odd choice for a musical adaptation, but no odder than a board game or comic strip, I guess. It may be more accessible to fans of the film or Sir Andrew’s other works, but any fan of live, musical theatre can rejoice in its return to Sonoma.  

‘Sunset Boulevard’ runs through Oct. 10 at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St., Sonoma. Thur–Sat, 7:30pm; Sun, 2pm. $25–$42. 866.710.8942.

Proof of vaccination and masking are required to attend.

Photos by James Carr

This review originally appeared in an edited version in the North Bay Bohemian.

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