Sunset Boulevard Disappoints

At ACT-CT in Ridgefield

By: - Nov 01, 2023

Last season, director Daniel C. Levine and ACT-CT in Ridgefield presented a terrific production of A Secret Garden. It deserved the multiple awards it won from the Ct. Critics Circle.

It is disappointing to find the current production of Sunset Boulevard not living up to that standard.

The sets are terrific. The costumes are great. Yet, Levine and the theater seem to have fallen back into some bad habits. One is sound design. It is too loud, particularly the orchestra. Secondly, Levine has decided to amp up the melodramatic aspects and the kitsch factor of the show, as if there weren’t enough of those already present.

It’s too bad.  He can boast of the 20-person cast and 11-person live orchestra. They are good.

But overall, this production did not move me. The first act in particular, seemed to drag.

It is still an enjoyable production. Interestingly, last year MTC in Norwalk produced the show. The production values were barebones; the cast and musical ensemble were smaller. Yet, I prefer the performances of the four leads in that production over those in this one.

In case you have forgotten, the musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Christopher Hampton and Don Black is based on the Billy Wilder 1950 classic film of the same name. A silent-era film star, Norma Desmond, has delusions of making a comeback and latches on to a 30+-year-old out-of-work screenwriter to assist her in revising a massively inappropriate and awful script. He becomes her “boy toy”. It all ends badly.

As Norma Desmond, Pearl Sun does her best. But Levine has amped up her mannerisms. Plus, she just appears for most of the show to be too young. Desmond is supposedly an over-the-hill middle-aged woman at a time when 50 was probably what a 70-year-old woman today would be.  When she is girlish, it doesn’t seem grotesque. Sun can and does sing the part well; it is just that you never quite believe in the character.

Michael Burrell is the screenwriter, Joe Gillis. It is a challenging character; when does Gillis consciously begin to use Norma, and does he ever feel anything towards her? At times he seems too gullible, which is hard to believe. He has been in Hollywood long enough and was a reporter before, so his journalistic cynicism should have noticed the multiple warning signs. In the second act Burrell does manage to overcome some of the challenges; you do begin to feel empathy for the impossible situation he has allowed himself to be put into.

George Xavier as Max, Norma’s devoted and protective butler, perhaps carries the stoicism too far. All I could think of was a character from The Addams Family.

The fourth role is that of Betty Schaefer, a young, naïve screenwriter who falls for Joe. Helen J. Shen captures some of the naivete of the character but again, fails to develop a full characterization.

It was great to see Gary Harger back on the stage. He makes a convincing Cecil B. DeMille when Norma visits his set. His brief reprise of “Surrender” made you want for it to be longer.

Scenic Designer David Goldstein has created a beautiful mansion for Norma and the studio film set is equally terrific. The costumes by Kurt Alger, particularly for Norma, are lush and expensive-looking. Charlie Morrison’s lighting sets the appropriate mood. The projections needed work.

Levine and choreographer Sara Brians use the stage effectively. If, at times, Norma seems to be playing too much downstage to the audience, you can argue that it fits the character.

Sunset Boulevard, which runs through Sunday, Nov. 19, is a solid production that most in the audience enjoyed. I did find the applause was tepid in the first act.

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