I must give full disclosure that the musical version of Sunset Boulevard will always hold a special place in my heart, so it is with trepidation and apprehensive reluctance that I go into any production of this musical. Having been spoilt with the likes of Glenn Close and Betty Buckley, the costumes of Anthony Powell, and that floating hydraulic mansion, it’s hard to think of a way to do this musical justice without unfair comparisons to the original. I will say this: if Patti Lupone couldn’t make a convincing Norma Desmond (and by most accounts she couldn’t), it’s impossible to expect any mere mortal to come close. Or Close, as the case may be, but the version currently playing at the Cohoes Music Hall offers other jewels to off-set what some might miss from the original.
With its tricky time signatures and less-than-sympathetic leads, Sunset Boulevard is a difficult sell to most casual musical theater fans, and though it won a number of Tony Awards, it’s been one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s less-beloved works. Part of the problem is the intrinsic flaw of turning the film into a musical: the whole premise of the movie was that sound had killed the career of silent film star Norma Desmond – how do you turn that into the art form of a musical, where sound is supposedly the star of the show? That conundrum has yet to be fully resolved, but for now the musical offers two of the composer’s best songs, ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Good-Bye’, as evidence of its lasting legacy.
Over the years, it’s been tempting, and easy, to say that the success of any staging of Sunset Boulevard depends mostly on the performance of the woman playing Norma Desmond. She has all the big songs, and the emotional pull of the show hinges on whether she can be both repellant and enticing. It’s a tricky role to navigate, and only the best can make it soar. Norma is supposed to be so self-obsessed that you can’t help but be drawn into her world – but it’s a self-obsession that is based on a genuine belief in herself and her talents, backed up by substance and frozen in time. She has to believe in herself so fully that there is no other way. She also has to make that self-obsession somehow endearing. It’s not enough to simply look the part and recite the iconic lines (if it was, Carol Burnett would have been in the running.)
Norma has to be commanding and imperious, yet fragile and vulnerable. She has to match the mansion of her surroundings with the force of her personality, while eliciting the pity and empathy of a wily Joe Gillis. Ms. Close managed to do so with the ferocity of her acting, Ms. Buckley with the powerhouse of her voice. Without one or the other, Norma is an impossible role. In this production, Catherine Fries Vaughn comes closest when she histrionically dances her dance of Salome’s seven veils, conveying both a bit of humor and vulnerability, while strutting around supremely in charge of the moment. She gives the role her best shot, even when besotted with wardrobe malfunctions, difficult wigs, and stubborn artillery.
Oddly enough, this production highlights the fact that the casting of Joe Gillis, largely a thankless, albeit hefty role, requires an actor with a slightly greater sense of nuance than Norma. He must start out as the supposedly “good” guy to her vain “villain”, but by the end those roles must almost reverse, and the audience must feel that as trapped as Joe may be, it is just as much by his doing as Norma’s.
Michael Turay proves to be the unlikely star of this Boulevard, and it’s a strange sensation, having been used to Norma hogging the spotlight all these years, to have Joe Gillis emerge, from where he must have always been, as a contender. Mr. Turay waltzes his way through the role with ease and nonchalance, and a deceptively strong voice that strikes gold in the solo title song and the 11th hour duet ‘Too Much in Love to Care’. As the more subtle role, Joe is usually relegated to stalwart stand-by status, but Turay manages to make his journey compelling enough that by the end of the evening he has done the impossible and stolen some of Norma’s thunder. As Joe, he provides the stable center around which Norma’s maelstrom pivots, and while she gets the showier role, he provides the show with its meaty chops.
Yet the real heart of this Sunset belongs to Jerry Christakos as Max Von Mayerling, who gets the big emotional-reveal near the end, and whose love and devotion to Norma musters more genuine heartache and sympathy than Joe and Betty’s somewhat-contrived romance. Christakos is in fine, deep voice, and he carries off what can sometimes be a one-note character with a grace and dignity that lifts everything around him.
The cast and musicians do their admirable best with that tricky time signature (Lloyd Webber once bragged that this was the only title song of a major musical written in 5/4 time, and I take his word for it) and under the masterful guidance of Joshua Zecher-Ross the nine-piece ensemble manages to fill the hall with what sounds like a full orchestra.
A few hang-ups (most likely due to opening night nerves) could be heard in the otherwise-straight-forward ‘New Ways to Dream’, but by and large the performers handled everything well, especially the fast-paced and impossible-to-eradicate-ear-worm of ‘The Lady’s Paying’. Director Jim Charles gets credit for a seamlessly-moving evening (and some seemingly-relentless scene changes), and set designer Jen Price Fick works wonders with a few cleverly-revolving columns, a transformative desk, and one grand staircase.
Sunset Boulevard is playing at the Cohoes Music Hall through April 15, 2012.