Director/writer Billy Wilder once warded off composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim's request to turn his classic 1950 film "Sunset Boulevard" into a musical by proclaiming that it should only be adapted into an opera. Years later, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber got the chance to musicalize Wilder's revered film noir drama about an aging and forgotten silent screen star and the sarcastic screenwriter who becomes her kept man.
Now playing at Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace, "Sunset Boulevard" the musical is certainly an opera-worthy affair in its story of dethroned Hollywood queen Norma Desmond's descent into madness. It's that dark, unseemly side to celebrity that makes the musical one of Lloyd Webber's more mature and complex works, if not one of his most populist.
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"Sunset Boulevard"★ ★ ★
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8:30 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; through Sunday, March 24
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes, with intermission
Tickets: $35 to $46; discounts available for seniors and students; dinner packages available
Parking: Free adjacent parking garage
Rating: Some profanity; for teens and older
Unlike many of the composer's other musicals, "Sunset Boulevard" didn't become a long-running global theatrical hit. Though the original Broadway production had plenty of spectacle and star power, "Sunset Boulevard" lacks the family-friendly uplift of "Cats" or the romantic extravagance and heartbreak found in "The Phantom of the Opera."
Still, Lloyd Webber packs "Sunset Boulevard" with a bevy of lushly romantic and much-reprised tunes like "With One Look" and "New Ways to Dream" reminiscent of golden-age Hollywood film scores. And since Don Black and Christopher Hampton's script draws so heavily from the original screenplay (complete with the iconic quotable film lines), "Sunset Boulevard" has one of the most structurally sound plots of Lloyd Webber's musicals.
Drury Lane artistic director William Osetek certainly does "Sunset Boulevard" proud with a fluid and grandiose staging that whisks audiences through the multiple Los Angeles-area locations ranging from the Paramount Studios back lot to Desmond's palatial mansion (the projected typewritten location designations is a nice touch). The behind-the-scenes aspect of Scott Davis' largely black-on-black scenic design is also symbolically emphasized by many scenes appearing to take place behind the iconic Hollywood sign.
Drury Lane's production strengths also stretch to the casting, with many leading Chicago-area actors taking on smaller cameo-sized ensemble roles.
As the faded star Norma Desmond, Christine Sherrill might divide some audiences because she comes off as far too young, glamorous and headstrong in the role (especially in Theresa Ham's plush and expensive-looking costumes). It's hard to believe that Sherrill's Desmond would be considered a fragile, aging has-been at the age 50 (!) as mentioned in the script.
But in the acting and vocal departments, there's no question of Sherrill's strengths. On opening night, she won applause mid-song at the triumphal transition of "As If We Never Said Goodbye."
Equally important is the dispassionate Will Ray as the principal narrator, screenwriter Joe Gillis. Ray adeptly navigates the heavy sung-through dialogue of the role and personified the jaded pretty boy aspects of his down-on-his-luck character. And as Desmond's butler, Max von Mayerling, Don Richard creates just the right creepy and disapproving tone for the far-too-loyal employee with dark secrets.
Dara Cameron makes for a lovely aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer, though she's saddled with the late lush duet with Joe called "Too Much in Love to Care," which doesn't dramatically ring true for the characters at that point in the show.
"Sunset Boulevard" insightfully taps into our celebrity-crazed culture full of Hollywood stars who cling onto their faded youth and tarnished fame. And as "Sunset Boulevard" reaches its conclusion, that fascination can turn tragic and deadly.