REVIEW: “Sunset Boulevard” at the Mac-Haydn Theatre

by Lisa Jarisch

For theatre goers “of a certain age”, the mention of Sunset Boulevard may very well conjure up images of beloved comedienne Carol Burnett’s loving homage to this classic 1950 Billy Wilder film. Burnett’s entrance as the faded Hollywood film star Norma Desmond slowly –at first—descending the staircase of her mansion to the applause and adulation of her faithful butler (played to perfection, of course, by the stalwart Burnett sidekick Harvey Korman) remains one of her many “Most Memorable” moments.

With this production of Sunset Boulevard, veteran Mac-Haydn Producing Artistic Director John Saunders has created his own Most Memorable offering; indeed this show may very well turn out to be the crown jewel of the season. With a glorious score by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, performances soar as high as the HOLLYWOOD sign that looms over the set.

Intertwining the stories and lives of long-forgotten silent film star Norma Desmond and the desperate and virtually poverty-stricken screenwriter Joe Gillis, the plot develops, unfolds and ultimately unravels to a tragic conclusion . Underscoring the
seduction of the young screenwriter by of the fading film star is the “B reel” plot of Joe’s attraction to, and eventually reciprocated, love for Betty Schaefer, and of course we cannot overlook the faithful to a fault Max , butler-cum ex-husband to the vulnerable, delusional, Norma Desmond as he protects with unwavering loyalty “The Greatest Star” who lives in a world where only she hears the echos and whispers of the applause that surrounded her in her heyday.

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As the aging, faded from glory and memory silent film start Norma Desmond, living in a mansion as dilapidated and tattered as the shreds of the wardrobe she clutches around her, Elizabeth Ward Land’s performance is a true tour de force. From her
entrance as she intriguingly inquires “Are there any laws against burying him in the garden?”, she captures and mesmerizes the audience, who are not released from her spell until the final flicker of spotlight leaves her face at her last “close-up.” Her hand gestures through the performances are absolutely mesmerizing—the flick of a wrist, crook of a finger, wave of a hand– each and every movement adds a depth to the character she has become.

Her voice is as perfect as her presence, capturing the pathos and the delusion of the world in which she lives. Her vocal presentation more than holds its own against the Norma Desmond’s who have gone before her …Patty LuPone, Betty Buckley, Glenn Close —yes, Glenn Close ! In what is probably the “signature” musical number of the show, her performance of “As if we never said Goodbye” is a show stopper in the truest sense of the word. As Norma arrives at Paramount Studio, which long ago and far away was her home and her life, she is both labored and sustained by the illusion that her triumphant return to film is upon her. She gives voice to the memories of her glory days and the soon to be unrealized dreams of a triumphal return in an opening night performance not soon to be forgotten. The single split second of total silence at its conclusion, before the audience, rightfully, gave her the applause due such a bravura performance, and testified to the magic of the moment. For 2 1⁄2 hours, Land IS Norma Desmond, and the audience in Chatham ARE the adoring fans she remembers from her glory years.

As the ultimately doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis, Pat Moran holds his own against Land’s Norma. His spiraling ascent and descent from a slightly jaded, debt-ridden screenwriter on the run from debt collectors to “a kept man” who ultimately shatters the mind and the life of his keeper is well-played and believable; he has both the voice and the presence to play against Land’s larger than life Norma. Their scenes together are fraught with increasing ardor—on Norma’s part-, and a gradual abandonment of principle and to some extent self-respect, as Joe yields to the pathetic passionate yearnings of the aging star, clinging desperately to the remembered vestiges of the youth she long ago left behind. In a rather awkward ending to Act 1, Joe yields himself to Norma following yet another suicide attempt thwarted and tended to by the faithful Max. As the music swells, and the lights begin to dim, the “couple” come together in an embrace that leaves little to the imagination as to its inevitable climax. Cue the less than subtle hints of writhing undulations…and was that “Mrs. Robinson, You’re trying to seduce me” we heard as the lights faded to black? A little more subtlety, a little less graphic detail would have made the point of the moment sufficiently.

In the almost obligatory sub-plot romance, the relationship between Joe and would-be screenwriter Betty Schaefer develops almost as slowly as the movie script they attempt to write together. Fortunately for the audience, the chemistry between Moran and Rachel Pantazis provides a much-need touch of reality and innocence amid the decay and delusion swirling through Sunset Boulevard and beyond. Their duet “Too Much in Love” showcases Pantazis’ lovely voice already on display in “Boy Meets Girl”. Hopefully Pantazis will offer her talents in other roles during the season.

James Zennelli as the faithful- to- a- fault Max guards the faded star and her memories with the intensity of a pit bull; you can almost hear the merest hint of a growl should anyone dare to threaten the fragile mindset of his beloved “Madam”, as she lives in her world of fan mail (that comes no more) and fawning, adoring fans (who never call). With relatively few musical moments, Zennelli nonetheless creates a full-bodied character whose presence is as essential to the production as it is to Norma Desmond.

As frequently is the norm at the Mac, production values hold their own against the performances. Original productions of Sunset Boulevard were encumbered and in some cases hampered by the huge and expensive set pieces, including a grand staircase which is essential to the plot and the “look” of the piece. Saunders has worked with Scenic Designer Erin Kiernan to use the theatre’s in-the round space to best advantage. The staircase integral to plot and action dominates in its permanent placement off to one “side” of this theatre in the round, and occasionally “doubles” as Betty’s office on the movie lot .

For the most part scene changes are made effortlessly if occasionally a bit slowly . Such is almost a necessary evil in the available space. Clad in black, stage crew shift the center stage from the house on Sunset Boulevard to Paramount Studios to with relative ease.

Jimm Halliday’s costuming is especially noteworthy, with his almost exclusive use of black and white attire for Norma Desmond, subtly reflecting her past and passed life in the silent film era. Costumes for the ensemble cast, representing the would be stars and starlets, casting directors, and players in the Hollywood business world perfectly capture the 1950s “movie biz” atmosphere. Special kudos go to the staging, choreography, direction, and costuming efforts that went into the “transformation” of Joe when “The Lady is Paying” for a new wardrobe for her soon-to-be lover. A full and complete change
of clothes, top to bottom, inside and out, was performed with an ease and grace that would make many a backstage dresser envious.

Lighting designer Andrew Gmoser generally “shines” with his use of lighting to capture both the teeming, cut-throat world of Tinsel Town in 1950 , and the decaying, faded glory of Norma Desmond’s mansion. The classic “HOLLYWOOD” sign towers
over Sunset Boulevard and the theatre in the round stage, reminding all comers they are living in a world where the camera rules, records, and cannot repair or , a world of illusion and of dreams both realized and shattered.

There are, however, several literally glaring miscues which not only detract from the impact of the scenes underway, but have the potential to negatively effect audience members with a particular sensitivity to their use. Strobe light effects throughout the performance, particularly in Act 2, are strident and overly extended, causing more than one audience member to remark on the almost painful impact. The use of the strobe is so prevalent and so frequent that perhaps it would be valuable, in a program note, or even included with the pre-show announcement, to let the audience know of its heavy and frequent presence. In another unfortunate moment, lighting in the final climactic murder scene is entirely too harsh; a spotlight aimed directly into the audience effectively blinded those unfortunate enough to be seated in Section 2. If I had not already been familiar with the action taking place in this moment, I would be left wondering “what happened?”

Also somewhat perplexing is the over-zealous use of atmospheric haze effect, which permeates the theatre from pre-show through curtain call. While a fan of the effect, in moderation, it seems in many moments of this production to be more gratuitous than

Under the guidance of Music Director David Maglione, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s soaring score is given the tender loving care this production needs and deserves. With violin, reeds, percussion and horns, the orchestra does justice to Webber’s work; it is always astounding how big a sound comes from the tiny corner of the theatre where the musicians ply their trade and their instruments.

Despite its few flaws, Sunset Boulevard at Mac-Haydn is a must-see show. Big, bold, and over the top in performance and production, this IS classic musical theatre done almost to perfection. The standing ovation given Leading Lady Land on opening night was more than justified; hers was a triumphant performance. The cast was collectively and individually a match for her talents, performing flawlessly with energy and empathy from start to finish. As a side note, the English major/Grammar Nazi was thrilled to hear cries of “Brava”, rather than the typical “Bravo,” as Land took the accolades and applause so
rightfully earned .

A trip to Sunset Boulevard, via Route Route 203 in Chatham, is highly recommended. Almost assuredly, this production will be remembered and talked about for quite some time.

Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, directed by John Saunders, runs from June 20-30, 2019, at the Mac-Haydn Theatre in Chatham, NY. Musical direction by David Maglione, set design by Erin Kiernan, lighting design by Andrew Gmoser, costume design by Jimm Halliday, sound designer Corbin White, props designer Joshua Gallagher, hair and makeup designer Matthew Oliver. CAST: Elizabeth Ward Land as Norma Desmond, Pat Moran as Joe Gillis, James Zannelli as Max von Mayerling, Rachel Pantazis as Betty, and Gabe Belyeu as Sheldrake.

The Mac-Haydn Theatre is located at 1925 NY 203 in Chatham, NY. 518-392-9292; http://www.machaydntheate.org

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