Monday, October 29, 2012
Theater review: Greater Lewisville Community Theatre takes ambitious risks with Sunset Boulevard
Two-time Column Award winner Caroline Rivera manages a massive personality in a small space.
LEWISVILLE This has so far been an ambitious season for Greater Lewisville Community Theatre. After staging the large-scale musical Hairspray this summer to mixed reviews, they decided to raise their sights even higher and to present the regional premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seminal musical Sunset Boulevard, a production that is a huge undertaking in any space.
I wondered how successful they would be at portraying the car chases, the huge and elaborate movie studios of Golden Age Hollywood and the enormous, looming mansion of silent movie star Norma Desmond in such a small space. But just as tricky, to my mind, would be how to house the overwhelmingly large personality of Norma herself in a theater space that confined. Part of the draw of Sunset Boulevard is the utter bizarreness of the story and the characters, and I wondered how Director Chris Robinson would walk the fine line between eerie and cheesy.
Sunset Boulevard follows the story of Joe Gillis, played by Michael McCray, an out of work Hollywood writer who, while fleeing from debt collectors, winds up hiding his car in the driveway of an old mansion belonging to former silent movie star Norma Desmond, played by Caroline Rivera. In need of money, he agrees to edit a script Norma has written for her planned return to Paramount Studios and stardom. He agrees to move into the house with Norma and her completely loyal butler, Max, played by Tom DeWester. As Joe is drawn further and further into Norma’s fantasy world, he becomes more removed from his own writing until ingénue Betty Schaefer, played by Betty Ford, inspires him again. Together, they adapt one of his short stories into a script, falling in love along the way. When his bizarre life with Norma collides with the life he yearns for with Betty, he loses his grasp on both.
On the technical front, it was rather amazing what they were able to pull off. By using minimal set pieces for a majority of the action and instead relying on some truly inspired projections from Lighting Designer John Damian, Sr., Robinson was able to keep the stage clear for the number of actors, singers, and dancers needed in many of the scenes. Though it was crowded to be sure, Choreographer Eddie Floresca kept the dance sequences simple enough to avoid any sloppiness. Robinson’s staging of group scenes were similarly simple. Floresca and Robinson kept focus on small groups of two or three at a time, using the other players to stage vignettes around the focal action. It was a surprising move that worked very well to maximize the small stage.
While Robinson, who also served as Set Designer, kept the studio scenes minimalistic, he showed no such inclination with 10086 Sunset Blvd., Norma Desmond’s famed mansion of twisted reality. On rollers, so that it could be pushed completely upstage and concealed by a curtain when not in use, the sitting room featured a settee, a bar, a bookshelf, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling stills from Norma’s glory days, a miniature organ, and—of course—a grand, curving staircase for his leading lady’s many, many dramatic entrances and exits. The set was claustrophobic in the best way, showcasing the mental and emotional clutter of Norma’s mind and giving the audience a visual representation of the prison Joe feels closing tighter around him every day. Similarly, Costume Designer Ryan Matthieu Smith kept the costumes period appropriate and simple for the most part with the exception of Norma, whom he draped in silks, velvets, diamonds, pearls, turbans, and feathers. The theatricality of her costuming was equal to that of her character and with one or two exceptions, such as a very strange New Year’s Eve gown, was spot on. There was a notable change in Joe’s costumes between Act I and Act II, as well, signaling a new found prosperity integral to understanding his character.
Though Joe narrates this story, the star of Sunset Boulevard and the character most responsible for the success or failure of the production is Norma Desmond. She lives in a world of her own making in which everyone, even the audience “out there in the dark,” revolves around her. She has lived in her own private movie for so long that there is no longer any separation between Norma when she is acting and when she is not. When real life threatens to confront her with reality, her fragile mental state cannot handle it. It is a highly demanding and iconic role, and Rivera more than held her own. Every gesture, every expression, every line she uttered was given as Norma playing one of her melodramatic roles of twenty years ago. Rivera never slipped; like a dancer, she extended the character of Norma through the tips of her fingers, and whether singing or speaking, her shrill, powerful voice commanded attention. It was easy to see why Rivera is a two-time Column Award recipient.
McCray, as Joe, was not as successful, but then it must be difficult to occupy the same stage space as Rivera. McCray lacked the depth needed to demonstrate the full horror Joe experiences as the play’s secrets are revealed to him and he finds himself firmly entangled in Norma’s machinations. His one-note level of intensity rendered his performance predictable. He also lacked passion with both Rivera and Ford, whose performance as Betty Schaefer was equally underwhelming. Though she had Betty’s earnestness, she lacked the gumption that makes the audience really root for the character, and her high soprano carried a vibrato that blended with no other singer. Neither McCray nor Ford was necessarily bad, but Rivera’s performance and Robinson’s technical innovativeness set a high bar neither met.
There were some standout performances among the supporting cast. DeWester was equally creepy and oddly heartwarming in his blind devotion to “Madame Desmond,” and Doug Fowler’s portrayal of Cecil B. DeMille was poignant and touching. The rest of the supporting cast did an admirable job portraying a group of young Hollywood go-getters in such a small space without overpowering the main action, thanks in large part to Robinson’s staging and Floresca’s choreography. I was also greatly impressed with Music Director/Conductor Charlie Kim and his orchestra. Working with Damian, who along with the lighting also designed the sound, they managed to give a robust accompaniment without drowning out the singers’ voices, no small feat in a small theater.
All in all, this was an entertaining show, but probably a little too ambitious for GLCT. Though Robinson’s projections were a truly inspired approach to maximizing the space, some of the time they were also a little comedic, which I believe was an unintended effect. A car chase intended to be hair-raising and suspenseful felt instead more like the Keystone Cops, and a couple of projected “sets” were too grainy and generic to really work. However, one scene with Max driving Norma and Joe through the gates of Paramount Studios drew gasps of appreciation from the audience, and the play of light and shadow to indicate landscaping features like palm fronds and water were beautiful.
And though Rivera’s performance was praiseworthy, she at times seemed too manic even for Norma, due in large part to such a huge personality being played in such a tiny space. I must give Robinson and GLCT credit for forging ahead with this production and for their many technical successes which surely will only make future productions even better.
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