On stage now through Saturday, March 5, The Larry Keeton Dinner Theatre (108 Donelson Pike, Nashville, TN 37214) is presenting the regional premiere of “Sunset Boulevard” starring Ginger Newman as faded Hollywood actress Norma Desmond.
Audiences first visited “Sunset Boulevard” in director Billy Wilder’s 1950 dark comedy/hyper drama of the same name starring Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a once beautiful, hugely successful and highly sought-after legend of the silent film era. The film also co-starred William Holden as Joe Gillis, a hack screenwriter looking for his big break. The two join forces when Norma enlists Joe’s help in fine-tuning a script for her ‘return’ to the screen. Of course complications arise, the least of which, Joe almost feels imprisoned by Norma once she insist he move in. Desire for success becomes muddled with affection mixed with sympathy with a strong does of dark humor as only Wilder could create.
Fast forward four decades and audiences were once again invited to visit Sunset Boulevard by way of Broadway legend Andrew Lloyd Webber’s seven-time Tony-winning musical adaptation starring Glenn Close, George Hearn and Alan Campbell. The beauty of Webber’s score is the strange familiarity whether you’ve seen the show or not. By weaving similar melodies throughout the show, the songs become recognizable, even to first-time listeners.
At the time of Wilder’s film, the genre known as film noir was at the heights of popularity. Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” walked the fine line between melodrama and film noir as the director managed to poke a little fun at archetypes frequently found in film noir while simultaneously presenting characters that evoke empathy, and yes, at times, sympathy. Webber’s theatrical adaptation took those elements and ran with them. Presenting Norma Desmond even larger than life. Meanwhile, those entangled in her life become so engrossed in preserving her self-deception that they too reveal their own vulnerability by their enabling ways.
Just prior to curtain each night at The Larry Keeton Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard”, Jamie London, the show’s producer, welcomes the audience and gives special recognition to Clay Hillwig who stepped in as director only three weeks prior to opening due to unforeseen circumstances with the show’s intended director had to step down. It’s understandable why this is brought to light, but it’s entirely unnecessary. Hillwig’s resume as a theatre director in Nashville is unsurpassed having helmed such successes as “The Color Purple”, “A Raisin in the Sun” and “The Grapes of Wrath” for Circle Players as well as KB Productions’ critically acclaimed productions of “Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife” and “Equus”. As the behind-the-scenes leader of “Sunset Boulevard”, add another success to Hillwig’s credit.
Hillwig craftily pays homage in equal parts to Wilder’s film noir vibe, as well as Webber’s grandiose flair for the melodramatic. These touches are present throughout the show, from the set design which includes a mammoth portrait of a wide-eyed Norma Desmond at the top of a once-grand staircase to the subtlety of movement in the stage direction of the cast, most notably Norma’s perfectly choreographed and seemingly floating descent of said staircase, right into madness.
The supporting cast is strongest when onstage for all-in numbers like “”This Time Next Year”, but there are stand-outs among them. Timothy Finch and Brian Best are deliciously, gaily hammy in “The Lady’s Paying”, and Tyler Samuel’s voice rises above the rest of the background players to blissful results.
The background players are also quite effective on their feet thanks to choreographer Cary Street. Under her watchful and creative eye, the cast of 20 pulls of a few dance numbers reminiscent and worthy of Hollywood’s big musical era.
Ginger Newman’s Norma Desmond, as this article’s headline and one of the show’s most popular tunes–“With One Look”–suggests, has the audience completely spellbound from the moment she takes the stage. Also borrowing from yet another of the show’s tunes, “she is a big star”. Last seen onstage in Keeton’s “Gypsy”, Newman also pulls double duty in her usual capacity as music director, but it’s stellar turns like this that leave her audiences wanting more stage time for one of Nashville’s most captivating actors.
As with any great star, or formerly great, it’s all about outward presentation. To that end, Keeton’s resident costumer Tanis Westbrook has dressed Newman’s Desmond to the nines, from ever-present turbans to regal capes and furs that seamlessly allow Newman to gracefully glide across the stage.
Prior to Norma’s entrance, the story gets set up by Justin Boyd as the aforementioned hack scribe, Joe Gillis. As in the original Wilder film, and the Broadway retelling, black and white images are projected onto a screen, both to mimic the feel of watching a movie, and to provide a little story detail. I just wish they had projected the images directly on the existing theatrical curtain, as the small screen used onstage looks a bit amateurish and the projected image doesn’t quite fit the screen size, but I digress.
Boyd’s approach in presenting Gillis as directed by Hillwig feeds off the egotistic Hollywood sensibility. He over-projects his lines as Gillis, almost comically so, but fans of film noir will be in on the joke. Thanks to a beautiful score by Webber, Boyd shines right from the get with “Let’s Have Lunch” and “Every Movie’s A Circus”, but it’s Act Two’s title tune, “Sunset Boulevard” that proves Norma’s not the only star on the street.
Tonya Pewitt, who’s appeared in nearly twenty Keeton Theatre productions, plays Betty Schaefer, a studio assistant who partners with GIllis in developing a script. As luck, and any great Hollywood film would have it, the find themselves developing much more than a working relationship. She’s perfectly cast as the hopeful but headstrong young woman, lighting up the stage every times she’s on it. Even in a role as limited as this, Pewitt’s undeniable talents grab the audience’s attention during the previous mentioned “Let’s Have Lunch”, as well as “Girl Meets Boy” and the revealing “Too Much In Love to Care”.
Rounding out the four principal actors is Randal Cooper as Norma’s loyal hireling, Max. Showing complete conviction to the role, Cooper shaved his head to portray Max, an homage, perhaps to not only Erich von Stroheimm real-life silent movie director who played the role in Wilder’s film, but also to Tony-winner George Hearn from the Broadway debut. Even more than physically conveying Max perfectly, Cooper’s voice, mannerisms and all-knowing raised eyebrow culminate in Norma’s one true caretaker personified.
Nashville audience have two more weekends to check into the dilapidated mansion on “Sunset Boulevard with shows continuing through Saturday, March 5. Thursdays through Saturdays, Dinner seating begins at 5:45 p.m. with curtain at 7 p.m. Sunday matinee dinner seating begins at 12:45 with the show starting at 2 p.m. Dinner show tickets are $19 for Children 12 and under and $28 for 13+. Show-only tickets are also available as are group ticket prices. For tickets or more information, Click Here or call 615.883.8375.
Want a little insight to the four lead actors? Click Here to check out my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q in which I chat with Newman, Pewitt, Boyd and Cooper.
If you’ve enjoyed this review of The Larry Keeton Theatre’s regional premiere of Sunset Boulevard, be sure and click the ‘subscribe’ tab located near the close of this review to sign up for free email alerts whenever new content is published.