With one look you’ll find yourself surrendering to the mystical magical charms of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic story in Cockpit in Court’s final musical offering of their 40th anniversary season as Sunset Boulevard takes to the stage. Directed by Eric J. Potter with Musical Direction by Terri Mathews the story of Norma Desmond, a Hollywood star long past her prime is brought to life through the eyes of Joe, your average down on his luck screen writer. With all the classic songs and heightening plot twists you expect from a Webber musical this show is a sensational conclusion to their epic season.
The set is breathtaking, so much so that it receives an ovation all its own upon first being revealed in the fifth scene. Set Designer G. Maurice Conn creates a decadent mansion with all the eccentricity befitting the golden girl of the silver screen. Words don’t do the multi-leveled set justice, complete with a grand staircase and enough portraits of the screen diva to weigh down the walls. It is the picturesque epitome of Desmond’s boundless wealth; gold gilded banisters and molding with deep crimson velvet drapes all accentuating the star’s taste for riches.
But the pièce de résistance is not the majestic mansion but lady’s automobile. Like a true star of the times Norma Desmond arrives at the studio in nothing less than a fully functional complete with headlights and horn mauve colored Duesenberg. Conn’s creation of the working automobile on stage is nothing short of stunning and mesmerizes the audience.
Such a story would not be complete without a plethora of wildly ridiculous costumes, mostly for the diva character. While Will E. Crowther does an astonishing job of outfitting the rest of the players with period appropriate pieces, nothing speaks louder than the incredible ensembles he provides for Norma. A dress of red, black, and gold accentuated in glitter, the black mourning gown punctuated with sparkles, and the dress for the New Year’s Eve gala looks as if the satin soaked up a shimmering gray oil spill, cascading from the straps right down to the floor. Crowther gives every ounce of effort to make these costumes scream ‘has-been glory’ for the fading star that is Norma Desmond.
The slight disappointment to this otherwise epic gem is the ensemble. Musical Director Terri Mathews spends all of her time focusing on the lead singers, neglecting the ensemble’s performance. Most of the group numbers, including the opening number “Let’s Have Lunch” and the big number midway through the first act “Schwab’s Drugstore” leave harmonious intonation wanting, and lack synchronization. This happens consistently throughout the group numbers but thankfully does not resonate among the lead performers.
As most of the musical is told through the songs, spoken words are rare. But those that come from the iconic producers of the time, Sheldrake (Norma Desmond) and DeMille (Jerry Geitka) ring through with the distant memory of Hollywood’s finest. Boeren as Sheldrake has that ‘can-do’ attitude and though his moments on stage are few, his interactions with both Joe and Max are cold and stony, the way you’d expect a producer from the business end of things to behave.
Geitka as DeMille is every bit the schmoozing charmer you’d expect. He recreates the image of the character with subtle gestures and pointed looks and when he finally reunites with Norma in person their reunion is simpering and sentimental. He lies through his teeth to appease the once been diva and still maintains that air of calm collected confidence.
We find quite the character in Artie Green (Darren McDonnell). While he really one of Webber’s throwaway characters, McDonnell makes the role something we as they audience would like to see more of. He’s charming and flirty; you’re average guy making a name for himself in the pictures. While he’s nonexistent in act II and is only featured momentarily in two songs during act I, McDonnell makes the most of his on-stage time, crafting a deep and loving relationship almost instantly with Betty Schaefer (Kelsey Lake).
Lake is the precious ingénue in the story; bubbly and light, nothing too serious. Her character is perpetually optimistic and Lake shows this to us with her light-footed step and continuous bright smile. She makes quick work out of developing a flirtation between her character and Joe, making it easy for the audience to believe that a romance could occur. Lakes lends her gracefully uplifting voice to songs like “Girl Meets Boy” parts one, two, and the reprise, as well as “Too Much In Love To Care.” She’s perfect for the fluffy role and brings a proper balance to the otherwise dark and aged characters.
Never will you hear a deeper and richer sounding bass than in the voice of John Amato, playing the humbling servant Max Von Mayerling. His character is subtle but ever present and when he sings you feel moved to the core. Though his songs are few his voice is beyond memorable, importing deep sweet emotional sorrow into every line he sings. “The Greatest Star Of All” and “New Ways To Dream Reprise” receive thunderous ovations from the audience.
The spotlight of this epic musical is shared by the bum writer Joe Gillis (Tom Burns) and the burned out star Norma Desmond (Nadine Haas Wellington). While the show focuses on Wellington’s plight and attempt at resurgence, there wouldn’t be a story without Burns’s narration. Both are well suited to the role and provide stunning solos as well as duets together throughout the production.
Burns is a natural born storyteller, every line sung packed full of intention and clarity so that each word echoes easily upon the ear. His fierce emotional solo comes to us as the opening of Act II, “Sunset Boulevard” where he is both enchanting and frightening to listen to as he explains his life up to that point. His duet with Wellington “New Ways To Dream” is strikingly beautiful and filled with hope.
Wellington as the incomparable Norma Desmond is nothing short of a knockout. She masters the role of eccentric starlet faded from glory, desperate to regain the peak of her career. When singing “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “With One Look” she attempts valiantly with rekindled passion to reignite Hollywood’s flame for her. And when she presents us with “Salome” we hear that true madness of a woman unable to let time pass her by. Wellington fully embodies the character, bending with each touch of sorrow, every faded smile graced with a tear; her performance stunning. And she never gives up, giving every ounce of hope and faith that she has to stoke the fires of fame in “New Ways to Dream.” Watching her decent into madness is truly and utterly moving as she slips slowly downward to the dark and climactic conclusion of the show; a stellar performance not to be missed.
This show will give you new ways to dream, new standards of performance with such strong leading characters, and a new hope for the perfect year.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Sunset Boulevard plays through August 5, 2012 on the main stage of the Theatre Building of the Community of College of Baltimore County Essex Campus – 7201 Rossville Boulevard, in Rosedale, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 840-2787, or purchase them online.