Audiences leaving Porchlight’s production of SUNSET BOULEVARD are not likely to hum one of its tunes. Few are catchy in the toe-tapping way of musical theater. What may linger instead are the show’s overpowering emotions. Based on Billy Wilder’s classic film and adapted for the stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber, SUNSET BOULEVARD brings out the human sorrow behind Hollywood celluloid. La-La Land is such a lonely place for stars and nobodies alike, people often make decisions based on desperation.
Desperation leads struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis (Billy Rude), fleeing thugs who want to repossess his car, into the garage of an aging actress’ home. As the silent film era star Norma Desmond, Hollis Resnik fuses madness, elegance and heartbreak. Porchlight’s artistic director Michael Weber stages the explosive May-December relationship between Norma and Joe with compact excitement. Together with a uniformly strong cast, the Chicago director and actress sync their talents to build the show’s narrative of illusion and loss.
Hollywood without the land in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Projection designer Anthony Churchill makes use of Jeffrey D. Kmiec’s unembellished triple-arch set and side panels to display mood-evoking images. Those unschooled in movie trivia may not know that the iconic mountaintop Hollywood sign was originally erected in 1923 as HOLLYWOODLAND – a real estate advertising ploy. Then in the 1940s, LAND disappeared and just HOLLYWOOD remained.
Tracking the time frame of the story, this particular word change also reflects the unmooring of Norma’s mind. She began her rise to stardom in silent films as a mere teenager. When the Talkies took over by the late 1920s, she didn’t make the transition. Or as Cecil B. DeMille, played adroitly by David Girolmo, notes, “30 million fans have given her the brush.” For Norma, Hollywood ceased to provide land on which she could firmly stand.
Porchlight Music Theatre production’s crushing reality
Following Let’s Have Lunch, the buoyantly cynical opening number about film industry hopefuls, SUNSET BOULEVARD shifts to Norma Desmond’s dark mansion where her butler Max prepares a formal burial for her pet chimpanzee. Max, played with pitch-perfect conviction by Larry Adams, goes far beyond loyal retainer.
After Joe stumbles into this eccentric household, Norma enlists him to edit a ridiculous screenplay that she’s written for herself – and Max conspires to keep Joe captive till it’s ready to present to Cecil B. DeMille. All that stands between Norma and crushing reality is Max’s protective fervor. When Norma finally hands the script to DeMille amid swirling action on the set of his latest film, Resnik is a wonder of bewilderment and vulnerability.
Despair fuels SUNSET BOULEVARD
Offsetting Resnik’s Norma is 22-year-old aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer who eventually falls hard for Joe. Michelle Lauro is formidable as the daughter of a film electrician and wardrobe worker – an insider who possesses unsullied joy for her work. Though not too many years Betty’s senior, Ohio-born Joe remains a calculating outsider. In this viewer’s opinion, as Joe pivots between Norma’s smothering attention and Lauro’s youthful affection, Rude doesn’t quite dig down far enough to reach the despair that fuels his character.
Porchlight’s intimate SUNSET BOULEVARD is nonetheless a highly satisfying take on a show that originated as a grand spectacle. While the score may be short on toe-tapping numbers, Resnik’s mature vocal power and the fine ensemble that surrounds her make it a moving night of theater.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves
Hollis Resnik, Billy Rude, Larry Adams, Michelle Lauto, David Girolmo, Joe Giovannetti, Shane Roberie, Danny Spagnuolo, Anna Brockman, Marcellus Burt, Justin Cavazos, Laz Estrada, Brian Healy, Alex Jackson, Ronald Keaton, Molly Kral, Mandy Modic, Michelle Owens, Laura Sportiello, Ambria Sylvain.
Michael Weber (Director), Shanna Vanderwerker (Choreographer), Aaron Benham (Music Direction), Jeffrey D. Kmiec (Scenic Design), Bill Morey (Costume Design), Maggie Fullilove-Nugent (Lighting Design), Robert Hornbostel (Sound Design), Anthony Churchill (Projection Design), Bek Lambrecht (Technical Direction), Michael Hendricks (Production Stage Management), Catherine Allen (Production Management)
Now through Dec 8, 2019
The Ruth Page Center for the Arts,
1016 N. Dearborn Street
About the Author
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.