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Sunset Boulevard

Thirsting for That Old
Lloyd Webber Talent

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Book and Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Signature Theatre, Arlington, Virginia
Saturday, January 15, 2011, (Gallery left)
Directed by Eric Schaeffer

Our first experience of Signature Theatre was courtesy of a friend, David Small, who invited us to accompany him and his mother to the Washington premier of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. A professional theater, casting established Broadway–caliber actors and cleverly utilizing its box theater to provide both intimacy and grand spectacle, Signature nevertheless had an insurmountable hurdle with this production: Sunset Boulevard is one of Lloyd Webber’s lesser works.

Let’s face it, the guy who, with Tim Rice, was ahead of the stage musical curve with Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita and, with Trevor Nunn, Cats and Starlight Express, slipped to second best with Phantom of the Opera (Les Miserables was on the boards by then) and then descended into a creative well run dry. Never subtle with his motif-laden scores, in Sunset Boulevard Lloyd Webber hammers his repetitive themes upon you. He seems to always be yearning to recreate “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” moments in Sunset Boulevard, easily setting a record for the number of big show-stopping moments; yet, nary a moment stands the test of time. The cast members, namely Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond and Ed Dixon as Max Von Mayerling, gave these moments their all. So, while I came away with the singers themselves indelibly etched in my memory, not a hint of tune hummed through my head.

This is a musical based on a movie, which is fine except that the production relied on vintage movie scenes played on a screen to carry some of the action. That blending of media seemed disjointed to me. I couldn’t help wondering whether it would have been better to rent the DVD of Billy Wilder’s movie and spare my having to listen to Lloyd Webber’s hammering, derivative soundtrack. Further, due to the stage’s size, the ensemble dancing sequence was painfully pedestrian.

Aside from the reliance on movies for auto chases, Daniel Conway gets a big kudo for his set design. Using moving platforms and authentic props—including a classic luxury car—the action fluidly shifted from studio to Desmond mansion to Hollywood bar to struggling artists’ apartment. The orchestra—an outstanding 20-piece ensemble under Jon Kalbfleisch’s baton—occupied the upper level of the stage, over the action and translucently visible behind screens, a visual hint that the live musical can pack a much more emotional wallop than silver screen images.

However, that’s true only if the musical’s music packs a wallop. Sunset Boulevard does not because a good cast and a great set can only do so much. Lloyd Webber is reportedly working on a sequel to Phantom and a musical version of Wizard of Oz. Too bad he’s not digging a new well—as he did with JC, Evita, Cats and Starlight—and wow us again.

Eric Minton
January 17, 2011

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