Theater Review: Civic cast drives ‘Sunset Boulevard’
“Sunset Boulevard” is a storied and legendary place, the proverbial street of dreams, brought to the stage in the perfect venue, Nineteenth Street Theatre, Allentown, where the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has its Lehigh Valley debut through Oct. 27 to open Civic Theatre of Allentown’s 2019-2020 season.
It’s a jewel of a show in a jewel of a venue.
It’s a grand performance in a grand setting.
At the center of the musical drama, directed with tongue-in-cheek verve and panache by William Sanders, Civic Theatre of Allentown Artistic Director, is a towering performance by Pat Birnbaum as the tragic actress who’s still a legend in her own mind.
On opening night, Oct. 11, seen for this review, there was enough tragedy to go around, including a calm but determined turn by Will Morris as duplicitous screenwriter Joe Gillis.
The surprise, though, in the Civic stage production is the portrayal of yet a third tragic character, that of Todd Rizzuto as Max von Mayering, Norma Desmond’s doting, faithful servant and chauffeur.
In Sanders’ direction and in the book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, poor old Max becomes the architect of artifice, even more prominently so than in the original 1950 Hollywood movie classic co-written and directed by Billy Wilder.
It’s, of course, because the Andrew Lloyd Webber score elevates the tragic-comedy (yes, there is quite a bit of snarky comedy) to operatic proportions. That’s especially true for “The Greatest Star of All,” which not only sets up Norma Desmond for a fall, but is sung so convincingly by Rizzuto that we’re convinced to go along for the ride.
And, boy, do Rizzuto, Morris and Birnbaum take us for a ride down “Sunset Boulevard,” fueled by Webber’s music and Black’s and Hampton’s lyrics.
Birnbaum moves languidly and royally as Norma Desmond in gorgeous costumes of shimmering gold on gold by costume designer Will Morris. She gives gravity to Desmond’s every utterance. She commands the stage throughout the show, no more so than with her emotionally-charged vocals for “With One Look,” “New Ways to Dream” and “The Perfect Year,” the latter with Joe Gillis (Morris).
Morris elicits a sense of self-assurance as the smoothly calculating Joe Gillis. Morris is in fine voice in “Let’s Have Lunch,” with the Ensemble; “Every Movie’s a Circus,” with Betty (Gianna Neal), Artie (Doug Ace) and the Ensemble, and the title song, “Sunset Boulevard,” that opens Act II.
Morris conveys the con (yes, it’s that simple) as Joe Gillis in the game he plays with Norma. She believes heart and soul that he will help resurrect her career. Gillis, on the other hand, toys with the emotions of Betty (Gianna Neal), who invests her emotions in him when they duet on “Girl Meets Boy” in Act 1 and “Too Much in Love to Care” in Act II. It’s a love triangle that can only ring with bad vibrations.
Rizzuto presents a stoic tragic figure, only to open up in robust voice on “The Greatest Star of All” and the “New Ways to Dream” reprise in Act I.
Other standout numbers include “The Lady’s Paying” with Manfred (Tracy Ceschin) and the hilarious “A Little Suffering” by Norma’s Consultants.
Director-choreographer Sanders, working with Assistant Director JoAnn Basist and choreographer Deena Linn, paces the musical with care for the big scenes and brisk pacing for the ensemble scenes.
There are several impressive sequences, including screen projections of vintage black and white film footage, and a scrim when Norma’s limousine pulls up to the movie studio gates, thanks to Lighting Designer Will Morris, Technical Director Sam Roff, and Set Designer Joshua Deruosi.
Musical Direction by Nicholas Conti, with splendid performances by the 13-member on-stage orchestra give the flight to the gorgeous Webber score, at times rendering the impression of a jazz-hot club and chamber-jazz ensemble.
Civic Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard” is a must-see for fans of the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the original Billy Wilder-directed film noir, and Lehigh Valley theater.
Tickets: Civic Theater of Allentown box office, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 19th Street Theatre, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943