‘Sunset Boulevard’ at Reston Community Players

Joe Gillis: You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.

Norma Desmond: I AM big. It’s the PICTURES that got small.

Well pictures may be small but Reston Community Players’ (RCP) production of Sunset Boulevard is really big and not to be missed. With a gifted cast, amazing sets, and strong direction and tech team, the story follows Norma Desmond, an aging film star from the silent picture era and her obsession to return to the silver screen (please don’t say comeback) with the help of unemployed writer Joe Gillis. Much of the show is set inside Desmond’s antiquated mansion on Hollywood’s Sunset Boulevard.

The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with book and lyrics by Don Black is based on the 1950 film of the same name directed by Billy Wilder and starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden. The film received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. The stage version opened in London in 1993 and received the 1995 Tony Award for Best Musical.

Katie McManus as Norma Desmond. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios
Katie McManus as Norma Desmond. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios

One of the critical factors to the show’s success is the actress playing Norma Desmond. The role requires the actress to bring life and interest to what is now a stereotypical character with little dimension and nuance. The challenge for the director and actress is to portray the character without going over the top. It is a very fine line. Additionally, Norma’s songs, especially the musical’s two showstoppers “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, require a big voice with range and control. Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, and Elaine Page have all played the role to great acclaim as did the wonderful Florence Lacey in Signature Theatre’s 2010 production.

Katie McManus successfully takes on the challenge. Her powerful, soaring voice and expressive face deliver a Norma Desmond that gives the show its foundation. I recently saw McManus in Creative Cauldron’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and once again I am impressed by her talent. She stays in control while moving Norma closer and closer to edge of insanity. Most impressive is her ability to maintain her power and energy throughout the entire show and into final moments. McManus delivers a mesmerizing performance.

Joshua Redford as Joe Gillis and Katie Depp is Betty. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
Joshua Redford as Joe Gillis and Katie Depp is Betty. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

Joshua Redford plays Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who stumbles onto the Desmond property and is mistaken for someone else before Norma realizes he may be the key to editing the script that will bring her back to stardom. Redford’s charming, easy style and his good looks help the audience to find him likeable even as he displays Gillis’ sarcastic and cynical qualities. Gillis has seen the dark side of the Hollywood dream factory and has few expectations. Redford, like most all of the cast, sings so articulately that he makes it easy to follow the dialogue told in song. Redford connects with the audience as he finds himself enjoying the luxurious lifestyle yet finds himself drawn to Betty (Katie Depp), a smart, young script reader at Paramount. Depp displays the earnest desire to write good films and her voice is clear and sweet. At this performance,unfortunately, there wasn’t quite enough chemistry between Redford and Depp to make the romance completely believable, especially in their duet “Too Much in Love to Care.” And there were some sound/mic glitches. I am sure these will be rectified by the next performance.

The scene stealer for the show was Paul Tonden as Max, Norma’s devoted butler. He doesn’t talk much but when he does, he commands attention. Tonden conveys the devotion and love underneath the character’s creepy exterior, especially in the second act as he reveals his long history with Norma and reprises “New Ways to Dream.” His rich voice will linger in my memory for some time to come.

Paul Tonden as Max.Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.
Paul Tonden as Max. Photo by Traci J. Brooks Studios.

The show has a big cast with Michael Bagwell as Cecil B. DeMille, Richard Farella as Artie, Danny McKay as Sheldrake, and Quentin Nash Sagers as Manfred. The ensemble includes Dwayne Allen, Sean Cator, Rene Kieth Flores, Cara Giambrone, Blake Green, Jasmine Jones, Karen Kelleher, Anthony Khong, Sally Kiernan, and Grace McCarthy. When the entire ensemble is on stage, the sound fills the theater. Music Director and Conductor Elisa Rosman and the ten-piece orchestra bring a high level of professionalism to the production.

Director and Choreographer Mark Hidalgo keeps the energy high and all the pieces moving. Scenic Designer Steven Royal and his team of carpenters and painters have created sets worthy of such a massive production in their scale and effectiveness to create a specific time and place. I have never seen sets of such high caliber in a community theater production. Costume Designers Jennifer Lambert and Hidalgo create a nice tension between the ensembles black and white clothing in some scenes and the bright colors in others.

In this age of celebrities with little or no talent and singers who are auto-tuned for recordings, it’s nice to know there is so much talent and skill available in Northern Virginia that can bring a big, challenging production to the stage to tell a timeless story of dreams and ambition. Sunset Boulevard is another feather in the cap of the award-winning Reston Community Players.

Running Time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, with one intermission.

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Sunset Boulevard plays through March 21, 2015 at Reston Community Players, performing at CenterStage at the Reston Community Center – 2310 Colts Neck Road, in Reston, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 476-4500 ext. 3, or purchase them online.

LINKS
She’s Ready for Her Close-Up: Meet Katie McManus, Star of Reston Community Players’ ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

It’s The Pictures That Got Small: Meet Joshua Redford, Star of Reston Community Players’ ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

New Ways to Dream: Meet Paul Tonden, Star of Reston Community Players’ ‘Sunset Boulevard.’

Reston Community Players Put On the Hollywood Glitz with ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ Opening Tomorrow Night.

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