Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Theatre review: "Sunset Boulevard" from Pittsburgh CLO.

Pittsburgh CLO offers an impressive-looking, well-played and sung short run of a musical version of film classic Sunset Boulevard.

Billy Wilder’s 1950 script about Hollywood has always left a strong impression with its dark, edgy and compelling tale about a silent film star who, no longer part of the dream factory, out of the spotlights due to time and inevitable change, still feasts on fantasy.

This comes full of melodies by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics and book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Webber has written several appealing themes, even though much of his score sounds more standard than special, especially in pushy, big front-and -center numbers. Other notes support rather than enrich the story-telling songs while his best music comes burdened with trite and obvious lyrics. Yet, every so often, something worth hearing emerges, including an instrumental tango.

The book works exceptionally well, replicating much of the on-screen source, despite the songs, not exceeding it by more than half an hour. If the plot is new to you, you can certainly get fascinated; a lot of what Wilder put there gets its due. Even some of the screenplay’s better lines are incorporated. On the other hand, if the film still lives in your memory, you could conclude that it is more a replica rather than a fresh remake.

Newly dead screen-writer Joe Gillis flashbacks a tale of how he got enmeshed in the cobwebs of Norma Desmond’s fading life. In 1949, former silent film star Desmond inhabits a museum-like mansion whose flickering shadows keep her alive, supported by her solitary butler, ex-movie- director Max von Mayerling. Desmond cherishes a belief that she’ll make a comeback in her own script in which she stars as teen-age Salome, luring Joe into helping her, sucking the life out of him.

Such a plot comes rich with possibilities, especially since Norma has sad, tragic dimensions. Moreover, cynical Joe has internal vulnerabilities while Max has his own sorrows. And there’s the subsidiary thread of Joe’s romantic relationship with Betty, an evenly-balanced woman his own age. Director Barry Ivan has capably staged many dramatic moments, interpreted convincingly by his cast.

I feel that Liz Callaway’s version of Norma looks most like a caricature, as if she were channeling Gloria Swanson’s performance rather than making this her own. And Swanson's over-the-top acting doesn't look all that right for film. The role has deeper possibilities. Certainly Norma’s visual art depended on significant body language, but the person off-screen could have been more real than that. Showing that human side underneath the make-up, away from camera lenses, could be a stage triumph.

Callaway always sings impeccably. So does Pittsburgh-born and CMU-trained Matthew Scott interpreting Joe. His excellently finds sweeter, more complex qualities underneath Joe’s acerbic surface. And Walter Charles gives Max as much dignity and distinction that the script allows, magnificently singing one of the best songs “Greatest Star of All,” the vocal highlight of the performances.

This production always looks phenomenal due to Norma’s constantly varying costumes and eye-catching sets, all of that rented, but proving that CLO has a good feel for what works best.

Newcomers to this fable, musical or otherwise, can find a lot to engage them. For those with more familiarity with it,this could either seem like a colorful revisit or prompt a hope for a more original interpretation.

Sunset Boulevard runs through July 29th at Benedum Center, downtown. 412/456-6666 or

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