December 23, 2010 | by Joey DiGuglielmo
‘Sunset’ at Signature

Editor’s note — Signature is having an LGBT “Pride Night” for this show Friday (Jan. 7) with reception to follow. Shuttle service from Washington is being offered. Tickets are available at 703-820-9771.

‘Sunset Blvd.’

Signature Theatre

4200 Campbell Ave.

Arlington

Tickets are $59 to $79

Florence Lacey as Norma Desmond in Signature's 'Sunset Blvd.' (Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Signature Theatre)

Washington finally has its own production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s great musical “Sunset Blvd.” with a new production from Signature Theatre that gives the Tony-winning adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder movie its regional premiere.

The timing is ironic — Broadway legend Patti LuPone, who premiered the stage version of the role in London in the early ’90s — just released her memoirs and for everyone who’s seen the now-famous YouTube clip of LuPone going berserk on stage yelling at an audience member who dared to snap a photo at one of her shows, you get a taste of the venom she unleashes in her book. Suffice to say, LuPone has a major axe to grind with Webber after he kicked her to the curb so Glenn Close could open the show on Broadway.

It’s easy to see how things could get nasty with top actresses vying for the part — it’s a classic role with tons of opportunities for whomever plays central character Norma Desmond to exhibit every emotion under the sun and show off a dazzling vocal range.

Florence Lacey, though not a household name, is amazing in the part, originated by Gloria Swanson in the 1950 movie. But as great as the noir classic is — it gave Swanson a much-deserved juicy role late in her career (sadly this didn’t lead to much else) — it’s an even better role on the stage because the singing is so demanding and virtuosic.

The story is a clever presentation of Hollywood outsiders on both ends of the circa 1950 Tinseltown food chain. Joe (a robust D.B. Bonds) and his pals are itching to get a foot in the door at the major studios. Joe’s reached a point of near desperation when he ends up at the home of former silent screen star Norma Desmond (Lacey) while trying to outrun two men trying to repossess his car.

Desmond is itching for a comeback and has her vehicle already chosen — a self-penned adaptation of Salome she hopes her old friend Cecil B. DeMille (Harry Winter) will direct. She convinces Joe, against his better judgement, to move in and edit her script. It goes OK for awhile but it soon becomes apparent Norma lives in a dream world clouded by her inability to see herself as a mature woman.

There’s much to love in Signature’s lavish production of the great work, for which Webber composed the music and Don Black and Christopher Hampton wrote the witty, clever book and lyrics. It’s about 80 percent sung and, with all the grand guignol melodramatics, often feels like an opera.

Signature has pulled out all the proverbial stops — the set is an ever-rotating eye popper that, as in the Broadway production, features staircases descending from the ceiling, organs coming out of walls and furniture whizzing around as the script dictates.

Director Eric Schaeffer has accomplished what is required of anyone hoping to successfully launch a production of a classic work — he manages to bring it all to life without getting in the way. There’s nothing about this production that ostentatiously draws attention to itself. He and his team have a field day but the focus is always on how well the script and score work, never on the players themselves.

And it’s a tough assignment. To be honest, my first mental image when the staircase to Norma’s mansion first appeared was Carol Burnett and her grapefruits (“Sunset Blvd.” was a recurring sketch on her classic ’70s variety show).  How does one move past memories of that and Swason’s great — but, let’s face it, somewhat campy when seen through 2010 eyes — performance?

Miraculously, Lacey makes us quickly forget Burnett and Swanson. Her Norma is a different sort of a person — she’s more petulant, more proud, even less able to laugh at herself than Swason’s (one scene not in the musical is the one in which Norma does a Chaplin impersonation — it’s not particularly missed except for the fact that it was one chance for us to see Norma could exhibit a sense of humor).

Under superb — but unobtrusive — direction by Jon Kalbfleisch, a 20-piece orchestra that sits above the stage, is dead on. So flawless are their interpretations, classic scenes like “The Perfect Year,” “New Ways to Dream” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” take on added poignance.

Those numbers, in fact, are key to the success of the entire show. It’s often derided as one of Webber’s lesser works. Yes it won a Tony but against weak competition. Much is also made of the fact that its original runs in London, Los Angeles and New York barely broke even despite their popularity (it’s a beast to mount).

And yet why it does ultimately succeed is that it gives a resonance and richness to the work that even Wilder’s film lacked. During songs like “New Ways to Dream” and “The Perfect Year,” we see shades of humanity in Norma that Swanson didn’t have the chance to explore.

Joey DiGuglielmo is the Features Editor for the Washington Blade.

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