‘Sunset Boulevard’ tells dark tale of broken dreams
Will Ray and Christine Sherrill in "Sunset Boulevard."
Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
1:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 1:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Thursdays; 8:30 p.m. Fridays; 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Saturdays; and 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Sundays, through March 24
$35-$46, with discounts available for students and senior citizens. Lunch and dinner theater packages available for $49.75-$68
(630) 530-0111 or visit www.drurylaneoakbrook.com
Updated: February 5, 2013 2:04PM
Early on “Sunset Boulevard,” former screen siren Norma Desmond swans across the stage bearing the swaddled corpse of a monkey. She’s a combination of regal and ghoulish in her mourning, a diva with huge, somber owlish eyes a Zombie porcelain pallor.
“Hey, you’re a Norma Desmond,” says the hapless hack Joe Gillis with a curious mix of awe and the sort of curiosity one displays around a gruesome trainwreck, “You used to be big.”
“I am big, “Norma icily replies, every fiber of her being palpably vibrating with indignation, “It’s the pictures that got small.”
It’s a scene that perfectly captures the tone of Drury Lane Oak Brook’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, a twisted mix of dark humor, impending tragedy and decrepit Gothic grandeur.
Directed by William Ostek with musical direction by the invaluable Roberta Duchak (whose work is currently on evidence on the big screen, where she served as vocal coach for “Les Miserables”), “Sunset Boulevard” captures the essence of a bygone era on Hollywood while telling the deliciously lurid story of Norma Desmond’s final act.
Based on the classic 1950 film by Billy Wilder, Webber turns operatic in this mostly sung-through story, a grim fable that takes place at the intersection of Hollywood ambition and corrupted dreams. It’s no spoiler to note that Joe Gillis winds up dead. We see him face down in Norma’s swimming pool in the first scene. The macabre tale lies in learning just how he wound up there, a writer-turned-gigolo-turned-corpse.
Wilder’s film is a masterpiece, a macabre morality tale wrapped in shroud of delusion, lethal artistic compromise, unhealthy sex and biting, bitter humor. At Drury Lane, the show largely lives up to its cinematic reputation.
Osetek has crafted a gripping production. Christine Sherrill and Will Ray are ideally cast as the fading Norma and her manipulative/manipulated boy-toy, Joe.
Sherrill, a full-throated belter who stops the show mid-song with her hugely soaring rendition of “New Ways to Dream,” ably walks a razor-fine line as Norma, deftly negotiating the terrain between drag queen camp (which Norma could so easily topple into) and tragic romantic heroine. Her descent into madness is thrilling to watch as she inches from regal, aging screen siren to babbling, near-psychotic wreck of a woman. It’s tough to play a role that starts out larger than life and just keeps getting ever more outrageous, but Sherill manages it with a mix of grace, intensity and in the end, rapt, tragically misguided joy.
Ray makes an able match for her as a cynical, struggling script writer who grows more disgusted with himself with every passing scene. And there’s fine supporting work from Don Richard as Norma’s devoted servant Max. He’s Lurch-esque, but just enough to get the character’s inherent creepiness across.
At the heart of the piece is Joe’s bitter refrain in the title song, an anthem to all that is false and soul-crushing about Hollywood. That Ray delivers it against a backdrop of the famed Hollywood sign only emphasizes towering, broken dreams that litter the likes of Sunset Boulevard.
The set is pared down from the infamous original two-story Broadway setup – a bifurcated vision of Hollywood perfected in a New Year’s Eve party scene that showed Norma’s mausoleum of a mansion on the bottom level and the rollicking shenanigans of young, aspiring starlets, directors and writers raucously greeting 1950 in a cheap apartment on the top level. Scott Davis’ set design results in a bi-level that’s mostly effective, even if Norma’s luxe tomb seems a bit underfurnished. That’s a quibble.
What’s a bit more problematic is the (over)use of video projections throughout the piece. The grainy, black-and-white footage works for an initial car chase scene, wherein Joe attempts to outrun his creditors and winds up with a blown tire in Norma’s driveway. It’s also effective as a means of depicting Joe’s dead body adrift in the shimmering water where Valentino once swam. Osetek should have stopped with the video right there; its use in additional scenes is a distraction.
This Hollywood definitely isn’t the sunny place of “Singin’ in the Rain,” but it’s morbidly fascinating. Video issues aside, Osetek’s “Sunset Boulevard” is an able telling of a noir classic.