“Sunset Boulevard: The Musical,” currently being revived at Northport’s John W. Engeman Theater, is a curious little show. It’s a musical adaptation of a 1950 film noir with music written by legendary composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (as the playbill proudly boasts). Production on it began in the early 1960s when another legendary composer, Stephen Sondheim, outlined a potential plot for it, with Webber joining the project in 1989. The original London production debuted in 1993, and the subsequent 1994 Broadway production won Best Musical and Best Original Score. A limited-run revival of the show starring the original female lead, Glenn Close, ran on Broadway only two years ago.
The musical focuses on a scriptwriter, Joe Gillis, who — like many low-ranking workers in Hollywood — makes little money but still dreams of becoming wealthy. After fleeing from a pair of car repossession men, he accidentally enters the mansion of Norma Desmond, a faded star whose fall into irrelevance has wrecked her mind. Desperate to make money, Gillis agrees to read and submit Desmond’s awfully written screenplay to Paramount Pictures and satisfy Desmond’s dream of returning to the big screen. As time goes on, however, Desmond becomes attracted to Gillis and refuses to let him leave her, trapping him in a very affluent prison.
Judy McLane, who portrays Desmond in Northport’s revival, fully embraces her character’s nature as an aging idol. Her operatic singing voice reverberates throughout the theater, and she masterfully combines a wistful voice with elegant body movements to depict Desmond’s obsession with her former stardom. McLane’s performance is at its best in an early number, “Once Upon a Time,” where she has the whole stage to fully embrace Desmond’s character. David Hess, who portrays Desmond’s butler Max von Mayerling, is also a welcome addition with his deep and beautiful voice, even though he only has two songs in the entire show.
The weakest aspect of the production has to be Bryant Martin, who plays Gillis. Martin’s Gillis is — to be frank — bland and uninteresting. He doesn’t emote well and his singing voice is excessively nondescript. There is one moment near the end, however, where Martin changes into a demonic, hateful monster whose mere presence fills the audience with intense loathing. He leaves the audience wondering where all this emotion was when he needed it before. There is also a romantic subplot between Gillis and a studio employee, Betty Schaefer (played by Sarah Quinn Taylor), but Martin’s character is so nondescript that it is hard to imagine anyone falling in love with him (aside from the very disturbed Desmond).
Webber’s score for “Sunset Boulevard” is an intriguing hybrid of modern music techniques and “classic” Hollywood music. His songs are — more or less — sung dialogue, with rhyming, metaphors and other rhetorical devices being reserved for solos. At the same time, the orchestra features instruments present in old Hollywood soundtracks, such as the trumpet and bass. The end result is a unique mix that, while not memorable, is very pleasant to listen to. It complements the adequately paced story well, although there is one number involving Desmond commissioning a fancy suit for Gillis that could have been cut in half.
The Engeman’s set design for this production is the most minimalistic set I’ve seen from them. It is made almost entirely out of unpainted wooden panels, save for the occasional couch or chair. Sometimes a projector depicting stock footage is used, and a collection of paintings depicting Desmond in her youth appears frequently, but the wooden panels are always there. There is an attempt to create a more immersive atmosphere with colored lighting, but the crude appearance of the panels made it extremely hard to visualize them as anything but raw wooden panels. Perhaps this was the point; Hollywood sets are made of flimsy wood, and the cutouts are perhaps a symbol of Desmond pretending to be something she’s not. Thankfully, McLane’s singing voice and Webber’s score are unaffected by the drab set design.
“Sunset Boulevard: The Musical” will be running until Oct. 27. Go see it if you want an interesting Hollywood-themed character study.