Friday 20 August 2010

Sunset Boulevard, or if only the Lord could be a little less Lloyd Webberish

This review begins with a series of confessions.  I am a Sondheim not a Lloyd Webber man when it comes to the modern musical.  Consequently, prior to my weekend expedition with two Maine friends to the Ogunquit Playhouse I had only actually seen one Lloyd Webber show in its entirety.  This was Cats as the family Christmas outing quite a few years ago.  The show was well into its run, and did not grab us.  Indeed my most vivid memory of the evening is of my brother (then active on the technical side of things in the school theatre) casting a jaundiced eye on the Christmas tree lights which festooned the theatre and declaring loudly “The technical management of this theatre is appalling” - that is, there were a lot of dud bulbs.  However, I am always game to see a show I haven't seen, and one should always be willing to give composers the benefit of the doubt.  So off I went last Saturday to a matinee of Sunset Boulevard.

Here I have to make a further confession which is that not only is my view of Lloyd Webber in general jaundiced, but my view of Sunset Boulevard was somewhat prejudiced in advance by the cabaret duo of Kit and the Widow.  As aficionados will know one of their best numbers is a satire on Lloyd Webber entitled “You Too Can Write a Great West End Score, Steal it From Somebody Else” . This I have heard them introduce as follows - “We wanted to write a tribute song to the big tune in Sunset Boulevard, the trouble is we couldn't find one!”

Finally, in the manner of laying all my cards honestly on the table, I have to admit that I have never seen the film on which the musical is based.

So, prejudices admitted, how does this show actually measure up.  The answer, patchily.  The subject matter is actually quite a good basis for a musical.  For those even more ignorant than I, the story concerns fading Hollywood star Norma Desmond (played by Stephanie Powers of the TV series Hart to Hart), and her attempts to reignite her career by appearing in a film of Salome to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, and written by a struggling writer, Joe Gillis (Tod Gearhart).  It has something of the air, taken I gather from the original source, of a film noir – from the lurking insanity of Desmond, through the fevered atmosphere of the Hollywood studio, to the dead body which frames the action.  The Ogunquit's production did a pretty good job of conjuring up these complex sets, although I wasn't completely convinced that the various full scale cars which were occasionally manouvred about, or the film projections for car chase and swimming pool (the latter in particular clearly unavoidable if you were going to be textually faithful) were always the best choice.

The performers too were a bit mixed.  Stephanie Powers, once one gets used to her voice which is that of a slightly creaking belter, is a strong stage presence and makes a particularly spell-binding job of her big number in the second act, “As if We Never Said Goodbye”.  Tod Gearhart was less successful.  His diction was poor, and although his performance picked up in the second act he just didn't quite have that mystical quality which really makes a performance stand out.  Beyond them, Sal Mistretta as Desmond's butler cum first husband/director could have been a little more ominous, and was sometimes strained by the vocal demands of the part.  Christina Decicco as aspiring writer Betty Schaefer who falls in love with Gillis gave an excellent sparky performance and one hopes to see her in larger parts.

The trouble with this show really is the show itself.  Actually, contrary to Kit and the Widow's strictures there are two big tunes in this show - “With One Look” and “As if We Never Said Goodbye”.  The trouble is that they are essentially the same tune.  Around them the music is similarly samey.  Nor is the show helped by the book (which is pretty much non-existent) and lyrics, a collaboration by Christopher Hampton and Don Black.  The satire on Hollywood comes across as a bit tired, the rhyme schemes as a bit cliched – it's all very solid, but it only rarely grabs you by the throat.  Yet, this show does have something rather dark and disturbing at its heart, and the real trouble one feels is that Lloyd Webber (unlike Sondheim) doesn't have the musical language at his command to do that material justice.

Overall, the Ogunquit Playhouse do a pretty good job of this show and with a good performer (like Powers) as Norma Desmond it is worth seeing.  But I cannot see it standing up to repeated viewings.

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