Sunday, August 20, 2017

‘With Just One Look’ “Sunset Boulevard” Pitches Into High Gear At Moonlight.

Sunset Boulevard is an icon in the minds of Angelino’s. It’s a destination and a place. Everyone wants to say that they have been there. To Norma Desmond, the faded fictional silent screen star of “Sunset Boulevard” it is home on however may acres her chateau sits, as she waits for Cecil B. DeMille to tap her for her next big leading role.   

“Sunset Boulevard” the musical hit the Broadway stage in 1994 after giving Los Angeles audiences a first look (why not?). This San Diegan happened to be in the audience as well.

Valerie Perri as Norma Desmond (Adriana Zuniga Photography)
It starred Glenn Close.  Everyone went gaga (not that one) over her. She won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award and she and the production racked up a few Tony’s.  At the time, this reviewer found the star elegant, her singing voice not up to par and the musical, not to be compared to the movie, overrated.

It came back with gusto to San Diego (San Diego Playgoers, now Broadway/San Diego) in 1999 with Petula Clark as Norma. Happily, she had the voice and range to pull off Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. (Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics) While Close had the class and Clark the voice, the musical incarnation is still static.

“Sunset Boulevard” is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder noir movie starring movie legend Gloria Swanson as the fading, bitter and out of touch with reality silent movie star, Norma Desmond.

William Holden played Joe Gillis, the down and out cynical screenwriter turned gigolo at Desmond’s bidding because of his precarious state of being broke and out of work. Gillis acts as the narrator retelling the story in flashback.  

Moonlight Amphitheatre in Vista has revived the show, mostly an adult audience show, for a three week run. It plays through Sept. 2nd.

Valerie Perri (Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography)
The production has gusto and some fine acting and outstanding looking sets provided by Music Theatre of Wichita. The good news is that director/musical staging wiz Larry Rabin has Valerie Perri in the role of Norma.

She is the best of the show with chops to prove it and the acting skills to believe it. When she belts out “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” the shivers crawl up your spine.

And those costumes (Renetta Lloyd, Carlotta Malone and Roslyn Lehman) she swishes about in, are tailor made for a Norma Desmond star quality actress. R. Johnny Fletcher, Norman Large, Robert J. Townsend and Valerie Perri (Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography
The show opens with actual footage from the film and puts us first at a crime scene with a drowning man, arms and legs spread-eagle face down, still dressed in street clothes, in Norma’s pool. It then segues to the gates of Paramount Studios with Joe Gillis running from the bill collectors. They want his car. We then segue back to a car chase around the infamous and dangerous Sunset Boulevard curves that land us back in Desmond’s driveway at 10086 Sunset Boulevard just around one of those curves.

 It is here that we see Gillis’ (Robert J. Townsend) tire blowing out in his 1946 Plymouth convertible.  He’s forced to hunker down there since the creditors want his wheels and he’s on the lam.
Norman Large and Robert J. Townsend (Adeiana Zuniga Photogeaphy)
After a brief, yet bizarre scene showing Norma mourning over a dead chimp, Gillis and Norma form a rather hostile alliance where she demands he stay at her home and help her rewrite a script she has penned. It’s for her grand return to motion pictures. 

After a bit and some coaxing from her man butler, (more on him later) Gillis does everything for Norma from pet sitting to lover as she plans her comeback.

The favors are returned in kind: She replaces his car with the much sought after Isotta Fraschini, buys him outfits in the latest fashions he will never need but to be on her arm. (“The Lady’s Paying”)  In essence he becomes her paid companion and in scene after scene she depends more and more on him while sinking deeper and deeper into a place one never wants to go.

For Townsend, in fine voice and playing second fiddle to Perri, his character is stymied until he meets up with the young, perky and bouncy Betty Schaeffer (Katie Sapper)  (“Boy Meets Girl”, “Too Much In Love to Care” and  “Sunset Boulevard”). When Norma discovers his relationship, well, the -you -know what hits the fan.

Most of the action takes place in Norma’s beautiful and elegantly, but dated furnished mansion (J. Branson) with a staircase for her to make her dramatic entrances and exits and with headshots of her that are bigger than life on easels and framed pictures placed around the living room.  

Valerie Perri, Robert J. Townsend and Norman Large (Photo by Adriana Zuniga Photography)
There is one big scene in the Paramount Studios (the place of her career comeback after silent movies with the 1949 Wilder film) with Campbell, Townsend, Perri and a large ensemble as Norma waits for DeMille to finish shooting a scene from one of his big biblical (‘Samson and Delilah’) movies to let her down gently as he rejects the script she wrote for herself and with Joe’s help.

Always in the background making sure that her every need is tended to is her major-domo/butler, Max von Mayerling (Norman Large), who in the movie is a creepy black clad overseer with a German accent. Large, who has also proven himself to have a gorgeous voice does not disappoint. (“The Greatest Star of All”, “New Ways To Dream”) He’s not quite as dangerous looking as much as concerned for Norma.
Katie Sapper and Robert J. Townsend 
John George Campbell plays a Cecil B. DeMille look a like that’s true to life. Other locals in the ensemble include among others, Debra Wanger, Luke Harvey Jacobs, Bethany Slomka, Lise Hafso and Evan White. 

Credit Jim Zadai on sound, Jean-Yves Tessier, lighting especially Norma’s dimly lit house, Kathleen Kenna makeup design, (Yes, it’s all about Norma) David Engel projections, and JD Dumas musical director with his twenty-one-piece orchestra bringing a crisp sound throughout the amphitheater.

Ms. Close has revived her role on Broadway this year. Go know? What goes around comes around. I’ll stick with Moonlight’s Valerie Perri.

If you are so inclined, rent the Wilder movie. It’s a classic.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Sept 2nd
Organization: Moonlight Stage Productions
Phone: 760.724.2110
Production Type: Musical
Where: 1200 Vale Terrace Drive, Vista, CA
Ticket Prices: Start at $23.00
Venue: Moonlight Amphitheatre
Photo: Adriana Zuniga Photography and Ken Jacques 


  1. Ummmm.... WOW. I don't know what show you saw, but Valerie Perri was off-key, flat, and completely lifeless the entire time. The infamous abomination that is the Wichita set looks like a bad Warner Brothers cartoon, I have no clue why people keep renting that tacky atrocity. Also, Petula Clark has a much SMALLER range than Glenn Close. They had to lower the keys several octaves down just so that she could bleat out the notes.

    In other words, your review gave me cancer.

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