‘Sunset Boulevard’ at Porchlight

Hollis Resnik as Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD from Porchlight Music Theatre

My 16th birthday proved transformative. No, it wasn’t being given the keys to the family mini-van with wood grain paneling after securing my driver’s license. Nor was it my Eagle Scout ceremony. Not even logging onto the internet for the first time (anyone remember AltaVista?).

No – it was the magical moment at the Ford Theatre outside of Toronto when the late, great Diahann Carroll descended the glorious John Napier staircase in her Anthony Powell gown and proceeded to own every moment as Norma Desmond. And there I sat, breathless, front row center, as she schooled the rapt audience on what a star performance looks like.

The show, despite its flaws, has been among my favorites. Since then I’ve seen a few Sunsets – Petula Clark in a paper-thin tour, a solid take at Drury Lane, and the luminous Glenn Close when she revived it at the Palace Theatre, bringing her own costumes along for the ride.

IMHO, Sunset needs a few things, at minimum, to work: A star, a staircase and a string section. Porchlight’s solid production has all three to varying degrees. The string section is more a tight chamber ensemble – which works just fine (precise music direction by Aaron Benham). And they’ve managed to fit in a staircase on the Ruth Page Center stage, even though it may have banisters clearly constructed from potting plants glued on each other. (Which is also fine. I appreciate resourcefulness. However, please someone ensure they are fastened together correctly – one was clearly askew, which drove me batty. This is the SUNSET STAIRCASE).

And they have a star. Hollis Resnik – one of the greatest, most versatile musical theater actresses in Chicago, or elsewhere.

I’ve been a fan of hers for years, and have long wished to see her take on Norma Desmond. Well – here we have it.

And – it’s a work in progress.

As of opening night, Resnik was still figuring things out. And I suspect she was under the weather, as her big vocal moments were spoke-sung or octaves dropped.

To go on as Norma with a handicap like that is no short of a challenge, which required her to use all her tools to draw us in. And, for me, she did.

It reminded me what a smart, economizing actress Resnik is. Her Norma is not some pathetic creature or vampire kabuki cartoon. No – this Norma is a panther, caged up and ready to roar. She paces. She wrings her hands. Her eyes constantly dart and glimmer with anticipation.

One key example: The anthem “With One Look” just kind of comes out of nowhere. Joe makes a few offhanded remarks, and Norma suddenly launches into an aria on her gifts of giving good face. I guess we go along for the ride because it’s a GREAT SONG.

Here, when Joe (Billy Rude) says, “Don’t mind me – I’m just a writer,” a flash of awareness comes over Resnik. She sees an opportunity to make him part of her ill-fated return to Paramount, which inspires the song.

It’s a siren call.

Resnik peppers smart choices like this throughout, which I’m sure will evolve into a killer Norma (I plan to return before its run ends December 8).

The production that surrounds her doesn’t get in the way (aside from her costumes, comprising, for the most part, of no more than a basic pantsuit adorned with various shawls, which feel like an afterthought). Director Michael Weber uses the ensemble cast well and manages to transition from the back lots of Paramount to Norma’s mansion with minimal traffic jams. I also noted a few small cuts to the score, which help tighten the story.

Rude makes for a fine Joe Gillis, even if he reads too green to credibly earn Joe’s jadedness. Joe has some of the best lines (ripped from the iconic Billy Wilder film), and if we don’t believe he’s slogged in the Hollywood system, what should feel like cutting satire just feels, well, whiny.

Michelle Lauto imbues the ambitious Betty Schaefer with fire and drive, which makes the final third of the play that much more heartbreaking. And Chicago stage icon Larry Adams is a stellar Max, Norma’s butler with a secret.

Look. I’m glad we have a Chicago Sunset featuring local talent and a star who’s earned her creds on our stages. It feels right. But, with off-loop Chicago theatre also comes the pressure of an opening night with a handful of performances to iron out any kinks. For a show as massive as Sunset, it simply needs more time. And I hope they fix the potted plant banister along the way.

“Sunset Boulevard” plays through December 8 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. More info here >

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