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THEATER REVIEW Sunset Boulevard
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2019-10-20

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Authors: Andrew Lloyd Webber ( music ); Don Black & Christopher Hampton ( book/lyrics )

At: Porchlight Music Theatre @ Ruth Page Center, 1016 North Dearborn Street. Tickets: 773-777-9884; PorchlightMusicTheatre.org; $39-$66. Runs through: Dec. 8

Porchlight's Sunset Boulevard is just right; a musically lush yet perverse take on Hollywood, as it must be, based on Billy Wilder's deservedly-famous 1950 cinema noir. It must flow like the movie, too, which is tricky on a stage lacking wings or a fly loft, but director Michael Weber and his designers meet the challenge. The show looks grand and moves fluidly, thanks to Jeffrey D. Kmiec's wide, angled set and Maggie Fullilove-Nugent's lighting.

Sunset Boulevard may be Andrew Lloyd Webber's strongest work, partly because his collaborators ( book and lyrics ) are better than usual for him, and partly because they closely ( wisely ) followed the tightly written film. Unlike legions of musicals, Sunset Boulevard needs no Act II padding because new story twists keep unfolding, just as in the film.

Still, some things about Webber never vary, among them his total reliance on end rhyme lyrics. Has he never heard of open verse? At least these lyrics are witty, filled with revealing character and story details and divided into two distinct types of music. There are big, slow tempo, solo numbers with fulsome operatic melodies, among them "With One Look" and the show's emotional center, "As If We Never Said Goodbye." These numbers live in the past, in a sense, as do Norma Desmond and her butler, Max, who sing most of them. And then there is jazz recitative using a repeated melody line, sung by everyone else representing the present, and rapidly moving along story situations. It's actually a very smart way to structure the show.

The orchestral reduction for a seven-piece orchestra also works well. Three strings provide a lush classical quality, while reeds and piano work equally well with both the operatic and jazz bits. Aaron Benham is the musical director/conductor.

But inquiring readers really want to know about leading Chicago diva Hollis Resnik as Norma Desmond. This experienced and skillful artist gives a deep, powerful, nuanced performance as the faded star, conveying with emotional force anything time might have taken from her still-remarkable voice. But be warned: her Norma is nuts from the get-go; crafty but clearly over the brink. It's fascinating and even amusing to watch, but chilling as well.

In co-starring roles, handsome Billy Rude is a youthful Joe Gillis and Michelle Lauto a spirited Betty Schaefer, and both sing strongly, while Stalwart veteran Larry Adams makes a calm, centered and convincing Max, Norma's butler and ex-husband. As expected at Porchlight, the large supporting ensemble is first-rate. It's not a big dance show, but it requires nearly constant musical staging, creatively engineered by choreographer Shanna Vanderwerker.

Special shout-outs to Bill Morey's spot-on period costumes and Anthony Churchill's superb movie poster projections, both treats by themselves.


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