The shallowness of Hollywood in its heyday is exposed in Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical now playing at Mercury Summer Stock.
And thanks to ingenious and imaginative staging by director Pierre-Jacques Brault, this musical rendition of the famous 1950 movie starring Gloria Swanson (“I AM big, it’s the pictures that got small!”) and William Holden is a feast for the eyes and ears. Even though there is one significant performance element missing, this is a show that compels attention at all times.
Norma Desmond is a washed up silent movie star who now lives a secluded life in her Sunset Blvd. mansion, attended by her devoted servant (and former director) Max von Mayerling. When down-on-his-luck, cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis is trying to avoid car repossession thugs (because, in L.A., “You lose your car, it’s like getting your legs cut off.”), he ducks into the garage of the Desmond estate, and both of their lives change in dramatic ways.
The production is handsome and riveting in a number of ways. Brault keeps the large ensemble of actors on stage for most of the piece, using them as supporting characters as well as walls and stairways. To wit, since there is no staircase on this stage, Brault creates one by having Desmond enter for the first time (and again at the end) by walking on a line of wooden chairs with the other actors providing their arms as a continuous railing.
Also, Brault employs cinematic touches, such as “extras” moving in the background of some scenes when only two people are talking. And the costumes (uncredited) are stunning, especially Desmond’s long and flowing robes of various opulent designs.
Continuous projections, designed by Rob Wachala, dance on the proscenium and on the side walls. These include clips from an actual silent movie, and these close-ups and graphics are totally mesmerizing. By reshaping the stage space with actors and fabric panels, Brault maintains an open feel that can instantly become claustrophobic with the use of lighting, strobes and fog.
As Gillis, Brian Marshall bites off his character’s lines with appropriate bitterness, although he lacks the age and/or dissipation to really come off as cynical and downtrodden as he should be. And, as always, he handles his songs with professional aplomb.
Jackie Komos brings some feisty zest to her role as Betty, Joe’s gal pal at the studio, and adds her capable singing voice to the duet “Too Much in Love to Care” with Marshall. Although Jonathan Bova starts out shakily in his Act One song “Greatest Star of All,” he regains his foot later in a reprise of “New Ways to Dream.”
Of course, the major role in this show is Desmond, and Helen Todd contributes a well-trained, rich voice to her songs, particularly on “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” But Todd never takes enough chances in portraying Desmond’s advanced state of self-delusion. Moving about with a placid-face and noble sort of grandeur, Todd doesn’t convey the crumbling façade of this woman’s psyche until very late in the second act. And that void creates a vacuum at the center that can’t be filled.
Another disappointment, given the production’s many remarkable visual flourishes, is the absence of an effective nod to the most famous image from the original movie: a body floating face down in a pool.
That said, this show features a wonderful score by Webber, with lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black. When you add that to the acrid whiff of unhinged ambition, and Brault’s impressive staging, you’ve got one fine show.
Through July 26, produced by Mercury Summer Stock at Notre Dame College, 1857 S. Green Road, South Euclid, 216-771-5862.