Entertainment :: Theatre

Sunset Boulevard

by Jennifer Bubriski
Contributor
Monday Jan 14, 2013
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Shana Dirik
Shana Dirik  

There are a lot of benefits to dreaming big. Dreams sometimes let you exceed what the world might think you capable of, and dreams are part and parcel of theater. But sometimes a dream is just a folly. The NextDoor Theater Company’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard" falls into the category of folly.

Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film classic, "Sunset Boulevard" centers on Joe Gillis, a young, struggling screenwriter who is sucked into the strange world of former silent film star Norma Desmond. The musical version is pure excess, starting with Lloyd Webber giving the music his typical ersatz operatic treatment. The very plot demands the baroque; the faded glory of Norma’s hulking mansion on the title street is a character in itself. (And the show’s Broadway and Los Angeles productions were rich with off-stage drama, with both Patti Lupone and Faye Dunaway suing the producers when fired from the role of Norma).

NextDoor’s production has none of this ornate glamour, and that’s the problem, despite some good performances. Devoid of a several ton set that rises on hydraulics, stripped of big budget costumes and a lavish orchestra, "Sunset Boulevard" is a mediocre musical with a few good songs and a lot of filler (the Broadway production did win the 1995 Tony but in a bad year for musicals against only "Smokey Joe’s Cafe").


Two of the few good songs are "As If We Never Said Goodbye," Norma singing her triumphant return, at least in her own mind, to Paramount studios, and the title song "Sunset Boulevard," sung by Gillis lounging at Norma’s pool, cynically reflecting on the caprices and cruelty of Hollywood. As sung by Shana Dirik as Norma and Kevin Cirone as Gillis, these numbers are decidedly high points of NextDoor’s production.

Dirik, who made her mark in Speakeasy Stage’s "Xanadu," sports a variety of fabulous turbans and nails "With One Look" and especially the show’s final scene. She’s shattered as a human being, at once sweetly vulnerable and gloriously delusional. If she had brought that reality to the rest of her scenes, her performance could have been great instead of good; but too often Dirik falls into cartoon. Dirik is a fine comedic actor and "Sunset Boulevard" certainly could tend toward camp, but if Norma isn’t a real, although tragic, person, it’s hard to feel or even spend all this time with her.

Cirone does play it real and succeeds because of it. His baritone is tailor-made for both Gillis’ driving, silky solos and the rat-a-tat film noir-type dialog. He’s completely at ease with Gillis’ world-weariness, and he unsurprisingly has excellent chemistry with real-life wife Shonna Cirone (who won a Broadway World award for her turn as Mother in Fiddlehead Theatre’s "Ragtime") as Betty Schaeffer, a Paramount script reader who wants to be Joe’s writing partner and maybe more. Their duet of "Too Much in Love to Care" is lush and lovely.


But the best vocals in the cast are delivered by Peter Adams as Norma’s glowering manservant Max. In the smallest and least showy of the show’s lead roles, Adams displays a stunning vocal range, making "The Greatest Star of All," Max’s remembrance of Norma in her prime, the musical summit of the production.

But a successful show needs to be more than just a few good solos, and NextDoor’s "Sunset" fails on all other counts. The fault really lies in the selection of the show; if you’re a theater with a small stage and what seems to be a modest budget, why select a show that demands the biggest of both? Norma’s incredible mansion consists of a skimpy staircase, tiny table, squat chaise, and a few chairs. A few flats swung out from the sides form the rest of the sets, but they don’t succeed in evoking those settings.

Director James Tallach also doesn’t bring much creativity to the larger numbers, too often having his ensemble just stand and sing. Emblematic of this is the opening number "Let’s Have Lunch." It tracks Gillis’ travels through the Paramount lot and should be a hive of activity, but instead it feels static and awkward. Choreographer Lauren Hall’s dance steps, that come out of nowhere completely unmotivated in a largely realistic show, don’t help. Tallach’s attempts to solve problems that stem from a less-than-Broadway-sized budget (having Norma’s gargantuan car drive across the stage is out of the question and staging the car chase that brings Gillis to Norma’s house is problematic) are not successful and veer toward unintentionally humorous.

Tallach and NextDoor artistic director Brian Milauskas certainly dreamed big in taking on "Sunset Boulevard," but in this case their dreams were as much a folly as Norma’s dreams of a return to movie stardom.

"Sunset Boulevard" continues through Jan. 26 at the NextDoor Center for the Arts in Winchester. For more info you can go to the company’s website.



Comments

  • Jerry Robbins, 2013-01-14 23:32:54

    Responding to reviews is not something I am in the habit of doing, however this review , written with a lovely poison pen from the Kevin Kelly School Of Acidic Critics, cannot go unchallenged. True, the Next Door production lacks "ornate glamor," - the set is not good. However, while an ornate set can certainly add something to a production, it does not "make" the production. When a set outshines, or carries a show, it’s not a good show to begin with. I’ve seen some pretty amazing productions on stages at North Shore Music Theater (in the old days, not now), South Shore Music Circus, Hyannis Melody Tent (when they did musicals) - you don’t need a set to sell a show. You need a great cast. Period. I saw this same production. Shana Dirik is amazing, not cartoon-like as this reviewer mentions. I don’t get the "cartoon like" comment (ever see a silent movie?). I saw Gloria Swanson in numerous interviews in the 1970’s - bigger than life, exaggerated, wide eyes and facial expressions that never stopped. So - in my book, Shana Dirik delivered and the performance was consistent. Norma Desmond is insane. She lives in her house with the ghosts of Valentino and memories of a Hollywood long gone, and 1950 outside does not exist. She is always "on." The one moment we see a crack in her dream world existence is in the very last scene. There is a momentary personality change - the armor is cracked, the wig thrown to floor revealing a head of thinning hair. Then, Max puts a headdress on her, hiding reality, and she once again, slowly, morphs back into "Norma Desmond, the star." Chilling. To call this performance cartoon like is just nonsense. I think the rest of the audience would agree with me. I am not going to address every issue I have with this review, but it is doing a wonderful production a great disservice. The choreography was very good, the opening number, "Lets Have Lunch" was getting laughs and applause when I was there (I think myself and the rest of the audience missed that part where they just "stood there and sang," - they were moving around too fast). The performances are wonderful all around, from the leads to the ensemble. The set is lacking, yes, but once the performances take hold it becomes quite secondary and meaningless. Instead, you have some amazing actors up there doing justice and making magic. The audience gave the production a standing ovation (I didn’t read that in the review - unless I missed it). The direction was excellent and very inventive. The use of the flickering strobe light to resemble a silent movie during scene changes was great , and the last scene is nothing short of genius. Blew me away. (And for the record - "With One Look" is not sung when Norma returns to Paramount. I think this critic was talking about "As If We Never Said Goodbye" - which she sings when she returns to Paramount. I think this critic is dreaming big with high hopes of being a major reviewer, but when you can’t even get the placement of a major song right, one might think those dreams are ... what was it again? Folly?


  • Anonymous, 2013-01-15 12:44:58

    Mr. Robbins - I must respectfully disagree with your comments. In fact, when I tuned into edge to read Ms. Bubriski’s review, I was shocked at how kind, fair and balanced the review was. I made the unfortunate decision of seeing this production during its opening weekend and found it painful to sit through. Despite the best efforts from some of the members of the cast, the production was plagued from the first note of the overture by inept musical and sound direction, a director with no creativity or story-telling abilities (wow, a strobe light during a musical about the film industry - how clever) and an ensemble of performers who appeared as excited to be in the building as I was. Ms. Dirik certainly put her best foot forward, but she might as well have walked over to one of the cardboard columns and taken a bite... there was absolutely no depth or reality to her performance. At the performance we saw, the audience was laughing for sure - but AT the production and AT her portrayal, not with them. For Norma and Sunset to work, the actress playing Norma needs to balance equal parts delusion and camp with equal parts reality and depth and Ms. Dirik was coached into a character that only contained the camp part. It was hard to watch. Kudos for the capable voices of Adams and Mr. & Mrs. Cirone - though they were certainly let down by the shallowness of their director’s characterizations. Another troubling moment (and I am surprised no one reading this website mentioned) was this wildly offensive scene in a tailor shop - I guess the director felt he needed to mask the production’s inadequacies by "gaying it up" in one moment which allowed the ensemble portraying a respectable (and expensive) tailor shop to literally molest the character of Joe Gillis including a pathetic moment with a measuring tape and Gillis’ crotch. Sad sad stuff happening at NextDoor theater. Here’s hoping their next production will be in more capable hands. When poor Ms. Dirik was forced to lay on an uncomfortably short table (which was used as a desk in a previous scene) during the "spa moment" "Eternal Youth Is Worth A Little Suffering" it was the first time I believed Norma - I’d find more solace (and comfort) in my delusions too. That’s when my viewing partner leaned over and whispered to me "They should have done Cats."


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