There are a lot of benefits to dreaming big. Dreams sometimes let you exceed what the world might think you capable of, and dreams are part and parcel of theater. But sometimes a dream is just a folly. The NextDoor Theater Company’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard" falls into the category of folly.
Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film classic, "Sunset Boulevard" centers on Joe Gillis, a young, struggling screenwriter who is sucked into the strange world of former silent film star Norma Desmond. The musical version is pure excess, starting with Lloyd Webber giving the music his typical ersatz operatic treatment. The very plot demands the baroque; the faded glory of Norma’s hulking mansion on the title street is a character in itself. (And the show’s Broadway and Los Angeles productions were rich with off-stage drama, with both Patti Lupone and Faye Dunaway suing the producers when fired from the role of Norma).
NextDoor’s production has none of this ornate glamour, and that’s the problem, despite some good performances. Devoid of a several ton set that rises on hydraulics, stripped of big budget costumes and a lavish orchestra, "Sunset Boulevard" is a mediocre musical with a few good songs and a lot of filler (the Broadway production did win the 1995 Tony but in a bad year for musicals against only "Smokey Joe’s Cafe").
Two of the few good songs are "As If We Never Said Goodbye," Norma singing her triumphant return, at least in her own mind, to Paramount studios, and the title song "Sunset Boulevard," sung by Gillis lounging at Norma’s pool, cynically reflecting on the caprices and cruelty of Hollywood. As sung by Shana Dirik as Norma and Kevin Cirone as Gillis, these numbers are decidedly high points of NextDoor’s production.
Dirik, who made her mark in Speakeasy Stage’s "Xanadu," sports a variety of fabulous turbans and nails "With One Look" and especially the show’s final scene. She’s shattered as a human being, at once sweetly vulnerable and gloriously delusional. If she had brought that reality to the rest of her scenes, her performance could have been great instead of good; but too often Dirik falls into cartoon. Dirik is a fine comedic actor and "Sunset Boulevard" certainly could tend toward camp, but if Norma isn’t a real, although tragic, person, it’s hard to feel or even spend all this time with her.
Cirone does play it real and succeeds because of it. His baritone is tailor-made for both Gillis’ driving, silky solos and the rat-a-tat film noir-type dialog. He’s completely at ease with Gillis’ world-weariness, and he unsurprisingly has excellent chemistry with real-life wife Shonna Cirone (who won a Broadway World award for her turn as Mother in Fiddlehead Theatre’s "Ragtime") as Betty Schaeffer, a Paramount script reader who wants to be Joe’s writing partner and maybe more. Their duet of "Too Much in Love to Care" is lush and lovely.
But the best vocals in the cast are delivered by Peter Adams as Norma’s glowering manservant Max. In the smallest and least showy of the show’s lead roles, Adams displays a stunning vocal range, making "The Greatest Star of All," Max’s remembrance of Norma in her prime, the musical summit of the production.
But a successful show needs to be more than just a few good solos, and NextDoor’s "Sunset" fails on all other counts. The fault really lies in the selection of the show; if you’re a theater with a small stage and what seems to be a modest budget, why select a show that demands the biggest of both? Norma’s incredible mansion consists of a skimpy staircase, tiny table, squat chaise, and a few chairs. A few flats swung out from the sides form the rest of the sets, but they don’t succeed in evoking those settings.
Director James Tallach also doesn’t bring much creativity to the larger numbers, too often having his ensemble just stand and sing. Emblematic of this is the opening number "Let’s Have Lunch." It tracks Gillis’ travels through the Paramount lot and should be a hive of activity, but instead it feels static and awkward. Choreographer Lauren Hall’s dance steps, that come out of nowhere completely unmotivated in a largely realistic show, don’t help. Tallach’s attempts to solve problems that stem from a less-than-Broadway-sized budget (having Norma’s gargantuan car drive across the stage is out of the question and staging the car chase that brings Gillis to Norma’s house is problematic) are not successful and veer toward unintentionally humorous.
Tallach and NextDoor artistic director Brian Milauskas certainly dreamed big in taking on "Sunset Boulevard," but in this case their dreams were as much a folly as Norma’s dreams of a return to movie stardom.
"Sunset Boulevard" continues through Jan. 26 at the NextDoor Center for the Arts in Winchester. For more info you can go to the company’s website.