Opening night of Sunset Boulevard at Maine State Music Theatre was the perfect evening of musical theater. From the first note to the last bow, this production is THE best show of the 2012 Maine summer theater season so far.
Based on the Billy Wilder film of the same name, this Tony-Award winning musical adaptation by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton, gives a haunting look into the movie myth mind of silent screen star, Norma Desmond, who longs to return to the big screen, having been lost among the advent of 'talkies'. When Desmond meets struggling Hollywood screen-writer, Joe Gillis, she sees new ways to dream of a return to her glory days. Their tug-of-war relationship explodes with drama, deception and volatile passion. With its little spoken dialogue, Sunset Boulevard is a kind of verismo opera with its narrative passages sung in a modernist recitatif.
Denise Whelan (Norma Desmond) gives a Broadway quality performance, with the perfect blend of passion, conviction and melodrama. Whelan stops the show with her brilliantly performed musical number, With One Look. Whelan's emotional and physical commitment to the role is consistent and breath-taking. Whelan holds the audience firmly in her silent grip from the second she appears atop the grand staircase until her final close-up.
David Girolmo (Max Von Mayerling) is a powerful balance of sympathy and complexity as the silent servant with a secret. Girolmo's excellent vocals in, I Started Work, provides another show-stopping musical number. Girolmo's unspoken dialogue subtly envelops the stage and when he does unleash his protective vocals, the theater is filled with a clear acting arc that comes with a shocking revelation in act two.
Maine theater favorite, Gregg Goodbrod (Joe Gillis) embodies the rejected screen-writer's personal torments with triple threat talent. Goodbrod is always at his vocal best, his acting top notch. Goodbrod's role is, perhaps, the hardest of the trio of leads to portray, but Goodbrod makes clear choices and his performance is flawless.
Lauren Blackman (Betty Schaefer) is perfectly cast, with soaring vocals that are rich in tone and believability. Blackman's relationship with Goodbrod is emotionally convincing, their, Too Much Love To Care, musical number another show stopper.
The ensemble of five, along with Curt Dale Clark (Artie Green) and the iconic Bill Nabel (Cecile B. DeMille), are perfect choices to complement the leads. Charis Leos (Heather) and Brian Michael Hoffman (Sheldrake), as usual, make the most of every second on stage. Vocally, the ensemble is a powerhouse with clear diction, appropriate emotion and tight harmonies.
This is, perhaps, the best show that Marc Robin has brought to the MSMT stage. Robin's direction and choreography takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride with perfectly executed blocking that paints brilliantly faded pictures of the past. A stylized New Year Tango is sexually provocative.
Music Director, Edward Reichert, performs musical magic with the performers, superbly supported by eight musicians. Because of the sung show style, Reichert's role is just as important as Robin's, and their pairing is a strong foundation to the success of this production.
The set, designed by Robert Kovach, is one of MSMT's best. The interior of the house on Sunset Boulevard is majestic in design and execution, worthy of the applause it receives when the curtain lifts.
Lighting by Nick Cyr sets the mood of each scene, taking full advantage of color, gobos and focus to enhance the many locations. Sound by Colin Whitely is inconsistent but not distracting. I do wish that real gunshots had been used instead of the obviously (and somewhat humorous) recorded ones.