HuffPo Review: Despite an excellent Norma Desmond, a dreary ‘Sunset’ at Drury Lane

Christine Sherrill has ‘New Ways to Dream’ as Norma Desmond in Drury Lane’s “Sunset Boulevard”

Before I begin to discuss Drury Lane’s disappointingly dreary production of Sunset Boulevard, let me set the stage.

Sunset Boulevard, the Andrew Lloyd Webber megamusical based on the groundbreaking 1950 Billy Wilder film about a faded silent film star, Norma Desmond, who latches onto a struggling screenwriter to make her ill-fated return to the screen, was my ultimate fanboy show. In fact, the first time I ever dialed onto the internet 17 years ago, the search term I typed into Webcrawler (remember that?) was “Sunset Boulevard.” I found a chat forum and became a frequent poster under the handle “With1Look16” or some such.

Frankly, the show was my breakfast, lunch and dinner for most of my late teens. I have all the cast recordings, including both German versions and the sampler CDs from when various actresses essayed the role of Norma Desmond (including first national tour Norma Linda Balgord, who’s starring in Marriott’s tribute to Andrew Lloyd Webber).

What was it about Sunset that drew me in so? Was it the heightened reality of old-school Hollywood mixed with murder and desperation? Was it the larger-than-life female lead who’s required to take on massive belting and emoting before falling apart in a grandly grotesque nervous breakdown? Was it the opulent set design that featured a mansion that descended from the flies like a rococo UFO? Was it ALW’s intoxicatingly sumptuous score?

All of the above, baby.

I was lucky enough to see the original Canadian cast (front row!) starring a regal Diahann Carroll and was a little less fortunate to see a wobbly tour starring ’60s pop icon Petula Clark. And, thanks to YouTube, I’ve gotten a taste of other productions and performances around the world (my favorite YouTube Norma is Helen Schneider from the original German cast — just watch).

So, it’s difficult for me to remain objective when it comes to talking about Sunset. Yes, I’m aware the show has its problems, most notably that it tends to take itself too seriously, where Wilder’s film had a knowing, sly wink and a thrilling sense of urgency and danger. But I willingly turn a blind eye to all that.

That said, when I heard Drury Lane was concluding its 2012-2013 season with Sunset, I transformed into a giddy 17-year-old theatre geek. I fantasized who might play Norma. Hollis Resnik, local Chicago theatre diva, was the obvious choice, but she’s touring as Mother Superior in Sister Act the Musical. So when it was announced Christine Sherrill would play the reclusive silent film siren, I was pleasantly surprised. Sherrill, a much-respected local actress, had a growing track record for stealing the show, including a recent stint at Miss Hannigan in Paramout Theater’s Annie. I applauded Drury Lane for casting local. I also had mild concerns she was too young for Norma, who’s around 50. I’ve no clue as to Sherrill’s actual age, but she recently played Elvis Presley’s blonde sexpot girlfriend in Million Dollar Quartet, so, yeah.

Upon Sherrill’s (limply staged) entrance in Drury Lane’s production, these concerns quickly vanished. Sherrill is fantastic. She’s sexy, manipulative, wounded, regal, and most importantly: human. Plus, she has a knock-out voice that can sore into her soprano range and quickly dip into a deep, steely belt. Her Joe Gillis, Will Ray, is rather ideal as well. Sounding a lot like Alan Campbell from the original Broadway production, Ray’s unlocked the tricky task of making us care for this smarmy antihero.

No, the problem (for the most part) isn’t the casting of the leads — it’s the direction. Read the full review on The Huffington Post >>

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