Review: Sunset Boulevard at Signature Theatre

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.