Review: Sunset Boulevard at Signature Theatre

The Thinker by Rodin

I always approach an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with caution. As the musical force behind massively successful Broadway musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Phantom of the Opera and Cats, Webber knows how to write successful show tunes. In fact, they are so successful that try as you might you cannot get them out of your head. Being able to have a tune cement itself in your mind is not the same thing as saying the tune is good.

I consider most of his musicals overrated. Cats in particular drives me insane; one performance was enough for a lifetime. However, Cats is almost inspiring next to Phantom of the Opera, the enormously popular but empty headed musical wherein largely the same tune is repeated almost constantly, and glitz, a coloratura, and a falling chandelier substitute for content.

I was encouraged to see Sunset Boulevard on the recommendation of a friend, who said it was probably his best musical. Sunset Boulevard, the story of the fictitious and fading silent screen actress Norma Desmond, first appeared on London’s West End in 1993 and made it to Broadway in 1994, where it ran nearly a thousand times. While popular, it lost some twenty million dollars. It apparently was good enough to win Webber two Tony awards, one for best musical in 1995 and another one for best original score. Having seen two musicals at Signature Theatre in Arlington, where aficionados of musicals can enjoy them in a smaller venue (but with no loss of quality), I knew that if I wanted to see the musical done right, this was the theater.

I was not disappointed by the acting or staging. Signature Theatre has largely cemented its reputation as a top tier theater in the Washington area, where it has plenty of competition from theaters like Arena Stage. It can compete with the best theaters on or off Broadway. Washington’s theater scene has in general only gotten better in the thirty years I have lived here. There is little need for me to take expensive trips to Broadway to see shows anymore.

As The Washington Post noted, Signature’s staging comes with a surprise: a full twenty-piece orchestra. Most orchestras lurk below the stage in the pit. At Signature, they are above the stage. From time to time the curtain will reveal their presence. A twenty-piece orchestra must have cost Signature a bundle, but it so improves the experience because you get such a full and rich sound. During Chess, the orchestra was somewhat muffled behind Plexiglas. Now moved fully behind and above the stage you hear the music probably better than you would if they were in an orchestra pit.

The problems with the staging and acting are minimal. Florence Lacey plays the lead role of Norma Desmond. Lacey is an accomplished actress with a large and long repertoire. She has starred in other Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, including the lead role in Evita on Broadway and Fantine in Les Miserables. She cannot help but dominate the show as her character dominated the silent screen three decade earlier. Desmond’s domain may be limited to her mansion on Sunset Boulevard and her servant Max, but within her small domain she controls all. Lacey brings a lovely maturity to the challenging role. With more than three decades in the theater, Lacey should be considered a natural for the part.

Joe Gillis’s role is perhaps more challenging. As a struggling Hollywood writer who gets caught up in Desmond’s web he has to come across as believable. D.B. Bonds is perhaps not the perfect fit for Joe Gillis; he does not come across as quite vulnerable enough for the part. If there is a surprise in the casting, it is Ed Dixon as Desmond’s always-hovering butler Max. Dixon fleshes out a surprisingly complex character and his bass voice will shake the walls of Signature Theatre. Some of the more minor roles are also notable, including Susan Derry as Gillis’s love interest Betty and Harry Winter as a wizened but gentle Cecil B. DeMille.

If you are not familiar with the music, it is a mixture of Webber at his best and worst. You get piffle tunes like Let’s Have Lunch and glorious tunes like With One Look. But mainly you get the Sunset Boulevard theme restated almost endlessly, which means that it will be ringing through your brain for several weeks. So in a sense I feel cheated. In other musicals, say Lucy Simon’s music in The Secret Garden, every tune is excellent and equal. In an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, he lets repetition substitute for innovation.

However, I do not rue the price of having Sunset Boulevard cemented in my brain for a few weeks. In return I got a rich and live orchestral sound, fine staging and the overall excellent acting and singing. If you want to see this staging, you have until February 13th.

Review: Chess at Signature Theater

The Thinker by Rodin

It seems strange, but The Washington Post so far has not sent a critic out to review Signature Theater’s production of Chess. A casual Google search turned up no reviews at all, which leaves it to me, a humble blogger, to fill in the gap for theatergoers. My family and I had front row center seats at last night’s 8 PM performance.

Chess is the late 1980s musical created by two of the powerhouses behind ABBA (Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) with lyrics provided by Tim Rice. It’s one of my favorite musicals. Some months back, I reviewed a concert version of Chess performed in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The concert version hewed fairly closely to the original version that ran on London’s West End for three years.

Chess is not like Oklahoma, where you know the words, songs and scenes will not vary in the slightest. Directors seem to feel free to reinvent Chess with each staging; the result is you are never quite sure what you will get. This is definitely true with Signature Theater’s version, which is quite a variant. Director Eric Schaeffer, Choreographer Karma Camp and Orchestrator David Holcenberg felt free to create their own variant of Chess. The result is a leaner version of Chess missing a few of the beloved songs. Those of you hoping for something resembling the London version with the glorious song “Merano” (or for that matter “The Story of Chess”) may be disappointed. The upside is that the creative forces behind this staging make a much more plausible and dramatic version of Chess.

For example, Florence was always a hard to understand character. She is supposed to be Freddie Trumper’s chess second, but in the real world, a top-notch female chess player is highly unusual. In this staging, Jill Paice establishes Florence very early on as an earnest chess player in her own right, capable of tripping up Freddie with her penetrating insight into the game. Florence is still caught up in a love triangle between Freddie and Anatoly but the tensions in their relationships are more plausibly established than they are in the concert version, or in the one other staging I saw some two decades ago at a local community theater. The plot, which seemed to have holes in the past, is now fully connected and plausible, with the level of drama consequently ratcheted up considerably.

Lyrics have also been rearranged, sometimes dramatically, sometimes surprisingly. For example, Florence sings “Someone Else’s Story” in this version near the end of the first act. Traditionally, Svetlana, Anatoly’s estranged wife sings it.

Florence has always been understood to be someone whose childhood was torn apart by the Cold War when the U.S.S.R. invaded Hungary in 1956. What is probably new in the Signature Theater version is a Prologue that graphically shows the separation with her father as a child and introduces what I believe is a new song “Lullaby (Apukad eros Kezen)”.

In the concert version, we have the first match occurring in Merano, Italy. Freddie loses the first tournament and Anatoly defects to the West with Florence immediately upon his win. The second act takes place in Bangkok, where Freddie reemerges as a color commentator for Anatoly’s match against a fellow Russian, while desperately trying to win back Florence. In Signature Theater’s version, we have Freddie and Anatoly first meeting to play in Bangkok, with Anatoly defecting with Florence before the tournament is even decided. The remaining games are played eight months later in Budapest, which of course heightens the dramatic tension given Florence’s wrenching experiences there as a child. In the original version, Freddie spends much of his time trying to woo back Florence in the second act. In this version, Freddie comes to believe Florence is just a “bitch” and he is better off without her. In short, Signature Theater’s version arguably works better as a drama.

Signature Theater has always been an intimate theater, so expect a couple hundred seats and a small stage where all the action happens. As I noticed when I saw Les Miserables there, the orchestra, oddly elevated to a spot above the stage, sounds somewhat muffled. Signature needs to find a way to make sure the orchestra can be heard more clearly. It could be something about being in the front row, but the mixture of hearing live singing with the electronic amplification coming through the speakers is sometimes a little off as well. The theater is small enough where I don’t think voice amplification is even needed.

The actors recruited to play the three principle characters Florence, Anatoly and Freddie are all terrific. Florence is really the central character and Jill Paice will not disappoint, neither as an actor nor as a terrific singer. Paice has a wider resume than most of the ensemble, having played many parts on Broadway and elsewhere. I personally thought Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie had the edge as the better actor vs. Euan Morton’s portrayal of Anatoly. Anatoly’s signature song is “Anthem”, which arguably could use a more powerful voice than Morton provides. The ancillary roles are all competently filled: Chris Sizemore as the Arbiter (he played Enjoras in Signature’s Les Miserables) and Christopher Block as Molokov (who played the less subtle character of Thenardier in Signature’s Les Miserables). This production introduces a new character to Chess, at least that I am aware of: Walter (Russell Sunday) as Freddie’s agent and apparently something of a State Department operative. Svetlana (Eleasha Gamble) has a smaller part in this staging and sings less but has a wonderful voice when she is finally allowed to sing. The ensemble is small like the theater, but arguably could have been used better. In one odd scene, they dance behind Plexiglas. It made no sense to me.

Should you see this version? The short answer is yes! Signature Theater seems incapable of putting out crap and is establishing a high bar in the Washington theater scene, which is already beginning to rival New York’s tonier scene. Signature’s version will be a bit jarring for Chess traditionalists, but Signature has arguably improved the product by making this musical far more plausible and coherent.

There are two scenes where the actors smoke, so if you are sensitive to tobacco get seats away from the front row. (I think the scenes could have been done without cigarettes altogether. I mean they are already wearing stage microphones which are visually intrusive; why use real cigarettes?) Also a personal note to Jill Paice: fabulous boots!