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Review | ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the Kennedy Center trembles with a volcanic Norma


I’ve never heard Patti LuPone perform as the original Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lurid noir-sical, based on the legendary 1950 film by Billy Wilder. But now that I’ve watched Stephanie J. Block sing the show’s two standout songs, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” I’m absolutely certain that the only thing more wonderful than Norma’s delusional is Norma’s high. notes.

Draped by costume designer Alejo Vietti in old Hollywood glamour—wait for her in a metallic chiffon outfit, embedded with Swarovski crystals—Block seizes every melodic moment like a green beret storming a key hill. She ecstatically takes the lead in these interludes, as well as Norma’s creepy final crazy scene, in the musical’s respectable 1993 revival at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

As with Fanny Brice’s role in “Funny Girl,” a Norma you spend the journey home marveling at is the definitive ingredient of a worthy version of this show. And that’s essentially what this production for the arts center’s Broadway Center Stage series offers. It’s well done, but the show is far from Lloyd Webber’s best work, with lilting melodies repeated so many times that the show’s title could have been “Sunset Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard.”

Staged in concert style and with an emphasis on the robust musicianship of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, the Center Stage series roared back to life this season with a pitch-perfect “Guys and Dolls.” Under the leadership of Sammi Cannold, ‘Sunset Boulevard’ gets its comeuppance. This is a result of Vietti’s glittering fashion sense and the vocal authority of Block, Nathan Gunn as Norma’s gritty butler, Max von Mayerling and Derek Klena, in the show’s other pivotal roles. He plays Joe Gillis, the hapless Tinseltown screenwriter who recruits the demented Norma for her comeback.

Everything about the musical pays homage to Wilder’s film, made timeless by the life-reflecting performance of Gloria Swanson, the silent movie star making her own electric return to the talkies. Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations (with David Cullen) reach for the luscious moodiness of a cinematic score, and Cannold doubles down on the illusion: red curtains part on stage to reveal a massive screen, on which set designer Paul Tate dePoo III casts black white projects. footage of mid-century Hollywood and brief suggestions of the films that made Norma a legend. Cannold comes up with a nice directing addition: a quiet, live reverie in which we see a younger Norma in one of her triumphant roles, as Joan of Arc.

It’s Norma’s fixation on another of her classic roles, as Salomé, that foreshadows the evening’s tragic turn of events: the plot itself is a bit of a slog, with Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s clumsy book and lyrics having little to do with it. doing. The scenes in which movie studio insiders, played by the ensemble, exchange barbs about their struggles for fame and fortune run long and filled with Hollywood clichés and a melody line relentlessly reused over and over and over and over.

These deficiencies put a huge strain on the character of Norma herself, whose desperation for a career revival, after 20 years out of the limelight, must be pretty tasty. Therefore, the role is a magnet for actresses of imposing and hyper-dramatic presence, including Glenn Close, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and Betty Buckley, who succeeded her on Broadway. (LuPone played Norma in the original London production.) What the Close and Buckley portrayals bottled up was Norma’s grandeur, her imprisonment in the eerie, solitary confinement of her own mythmaking.

Block, a former Elphaba who won a Tony herself playing Cher, is an intriguing heir to the role: her Norma is less haughty than affectionate and more obsessively devoted to keeping Joe’s affections in check. She and Cannold seem to have calculated that the gargoyle aspects of monstrous Norma – as eternally captured in Swanson’s stills – should only become apparent step-by-step, and then surgically in the latter part of the musical, as Joe snatches from her slides. (It wouldn’t hurt if Auli’i Cravalho added a little more steel to her portrayal of Norma’s younger romantic rival, Betty Schaefer.)

Block’s performance culminates in those two meaty numbers that magnify the character’s fatal flaw – her belief that the image that exists in two celluloid dimensions can continue to thrive in three. The excitement the actress generates in captivating crescendos is a testament to the all-consuming power of self-deception.

sunset boulevard, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Sets and Projections, Paul Tate dePoo III; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound Kai Harada and Haley Parcher; music director, Ben Cohn; choreography, Emily Maltby. With Paul Schoeffler, Michael Maliakel. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Until February 8 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.

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