Sunset Blvd: A Theatrical Review
Musical Theatre West is moving and shaking ground once again with their current production of Sunset Blvd. (Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton), currently playing at the Karen Carpenter Theatre in Long Beach, CA. This production is about an actress from the silent film era who has fallen out of prestige with the studios and the dawning of the talkies. It revolves around a young writer who finds himself literally hiding out and eventually becoming her ‘kept man’ while she glamorizes about her plot to return to the big screen in her own motion picture that she herself has written and this ‘kept man’ is hired to edit for her. The true definition of a Diva is portrayed in the development of the character of Norma Desmond, as well as the powerfully surreal understanding of what it is to be sold out ‘a prostitute’ to convenience, dreams, hopes, and ambitions by the character of the writer. It is an ancient musical by modern time’s standards, but still an extremely powerful and creative one.
The production itself was spectacular; the sets which were apparently all borrowed by from the Music Theatre of Wichita were fabulous. The orchestra, under the direction of David Lamoureux was spot on, and the costuming by George T. Mitchell was good in most cases. The direction of this production, done by Larry Raben was intelligent and inventive, and the choreography by John Todd was enjoyable. The cast seemed disjointed however, with some extremely questionable choices which I as a critic find peculiar at best. David Burnham as leading man Joe Gillis was outstanding. His voice, charisma, stage charm, and apparent expertise of his craft, instrument, and talent was a true pleasure to experience. I would more than happy to watch this young man in any production. However, in comparison to the rest of the cast, nay one, he seemed to be miscast. His abilities, and presence alone, not to mention his vocal technique, seemed to demand that the remainder of the cast should also be at his level and this was absolutely not the case.
Where David Burnham was truly spectacular, his only rival or actual acting companion worthy to share the stage with him was Norman Large who portrayed Man Von Mayerling. This gentlemen had the same sort of charisma, expertise, vocal ability, and personage as Burnham, and watching the two of them on stage together was wonderful. Ashley Fox Linton as Betty Schaefer was more than acceptable for the size of the role, and she did a relatively nice job with it. But then there was the rest of the cast…
A cast selected that did not seem to fit the time and era of this production at all. It was clear there were some that were far better than others, but being in the chorus, they were never given the opportunity to shine, and that was highly frustrating. But over all a cast that seemed to be difficult to enjoy as it seemed cast questionably by whomever the casting director for show was. It was disjointed, and very apparent to more than me in the audience that it did not fit well together. I HUGE clue to the directors of Musical Theatre West for their next casting…choose another casting director. Then we must mention the leading lady, the role of Norma Desmond portrayed by Valerie Perri. Alright, I get that she looks the part, and as I have not met this actress, I have no idea if she was type cast or not, I sincerely hope not. And when singing one of the most well-known and well-loved selections from the show, ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, she made it clear that she does understand what her vocal instrument is, and how to effectively utilize it. However, for the remainder, and yes I do me the entire remainder of this production, the well-trained vocal ear found itself wincing from the slaughter of every number this actress attempting to sing. Yes, to those who do not understand the intelligence of vocal work and the proper manner in which it should be used, there was the assumption that this actress was handling this role well. I, as a trained vocalist, had I been her voice teacher, or the musical director, would likely have fired this actress the first time she allowed the sinus sound out of her mouth that seemed to overpower and slaughter most every song she opened her mouth to sing.
I wanted to enjoy this production so very much, and thanks to Mr. Burnham and Mr. Large, there were some wonderful moments. However, the female selections, the strange male selections for the, and the overwhelming wrong choice of a leading lady just caused not only a massive migraine headache, but a challenge to my respect for many aspects of this production and those who were responsible for putting it together. If you are not a singer, you will not likely encounter the same issues I did and will likely enjoy this production just fine. If you are, bring earplugs for the female selections and take them out with Burnham or Large are singing.
The California Theatre Critic