Though I pride myself on a rather robust knowledge of American musical theater, one show I’ve never managed to get to is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, the musical based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 film of the same name. The film and its larger-than-life protagonist Norma Desmond are so iconic that it’s hard to imagine anyone isn’t familiar with the story of the aging actress who’s determined to return to the silver screen.
Porchlight Music Theatre helped resolve this theatrical blindspot of mine this week by presenting the show as the opening production of their 25th anniversary season. Directed by Porchlight Artistic Director Michael Weber, Norma Desmond is here embodied by Hollis Resnik, known around these parts as “the first lady of Chicago theater.” She arrives in the role at what appears to be perfect timing, of a certain age and knowing intimately what it is to have more of your career behind you than ahead of you. That she channels all of this into a performance as raw as it is appropriately desperate is an achievement in its own right, if at times difficult to watch.
All of this should add up to quite an exceptional night at the theater, and certainly Porchlight has delivered on such promise time and time again in my experience. But for a number of reasons I’m heartbroken to report, this latest outing for the usually reliable musical theater outfit is just not up to its own standards. It’s true that Resnik gives the demanding role her all, but more than once while delivering the production’s most glorious songs (“With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye”), it appeared as though she didn’t have quite enough to give. There are glimpses of greatness throughout, but at the performance attended for this review, it wasn’t until her very final scene that it all finally clicked.
Part of the struggle is likely the miscasting of the show’s other pivotal role, that of Joe Gillis, a down-on-his-luck studio screenwriter who stumbles into Norma’s world when he’s on the run from loan sharks looking to repossess his car. The actor portraying him, Billy Rude, is certainly younger than Resnik, as is needed for the central dynamic of the plot as Norma latches on to Gillis’s youth and potential in order to renew her own. But Rude is so wet behind the ears (he graduated from Roosevelt University just last year), he’s practically dripping, and it’s next to impossible to believe that he’s seen anywhere near enough of the world to be beaten down by it and desperate for a break. The role demands a level of gravitas and masculinity that balances Norma’s unsettled chaos, and Rude simply doesn’t have it (yet).
A number of technical issues detracted from the overall impression of the show, as small things like mic issues (sound popping in and out, some ensemble members delivering lines without amplification), errant spotlights (once, an actor had to walk into one that had moved before he did) and wobbly projections (ruining the illusion of various set signage and set-ups) added up to a fairly messy presentation overall. It was all quite stunning to watch (for the wrong reasons, of course), given the usual high bar Weber and his team have for their productions.
Sunset Boulevard is not an easy show to produce on a relatively small scale, with quite a few locations to conjure and significant scenes (like car chases, for example) that are anything but simple to stage. This production gets credit for trying, to be sure, and elements throughout do manage a bit of the familiar magic that Porchlight is capable of. Norma’s costumes (designed by Bill Morey) are divine, and some of the show’s best performances are delivered by supporting characters—Larry Adams stuns with his version of “The Greatest Star of All,” and Michelle Lauto is a dream as Betty Schaefer, a studio assistant and Gillis’s other love interest. It could very well be that some of the hiccups of this particular Tuesday night performance are just that, minor missteps and issues that won’t reappear in future ones. And if that is the case, then by all means, a night with Sunset Boulevard would be a night well spent, if only for a chance to see Hollis Resnik in the role she was always meant to play.
Sunset Boulevard has already been extended at Porchlight Music Theatre (1016 N. Dearborn St.) through December 8; tickets range from $39-$66 and are available online here.
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