Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard is based on a classic Billy Wilder movie about a starving young screenwriter (is there any other kind?) who happens upon the mansion of a former movie star, Norma Desmond. As played by Florence Lacey in Signature Theatre’s production, Desmond has become a recluse, surrounded by the trappings of her former fame and convinced that a legion of adoring fans is waiting for her comeback. She hires the young writer, Joe Gillis (D.B. Bonds), to work on a script intended to be her comeback, a Biblical epic in which the fiftysomething star is to play a teenage Salome. Gillis knows the script is a disaster, but he’s seduced by the luxurious life Desmond offers. It’s a deal with the devil, and it’s bound to end badly. This is no surprise—the opening monologue talks of a tragic death on Sunset Boulevard. The only mystery is the identity of the victim.
But the real crime of this production is that the butler did it—stealing every scene, that is. Ed Dixon’s portrayal of Max Von Mayerling, adoring factotum to Desmond, has an amazing singing voice and a mesmerizing stage presence. The problem, of course, is that Max shouldn’t outshine Norma Desmond.
What was a gripping movie is a strained stage show. This isn’t Andrew Lloyd Webber’s finest hour. He has created a so-so musical that’s nonetheless been a very effective vehicle for female stars of a certain age. It worked for Glenn Close on Broadway and Betty Buckley in London. Not so much for Florence Lacey at Signature.
Director Eric Schaeffer is known for his mastery with musicals. The production values are splendid—a terrific set, film noir lighting, costumes that convey Desmond’s misguided idea of glamour. But all of Schaeffer’s fancy tricks can’t prop up this flawed production.
At Signature Theatre through February 13. Tickets ($70-$75) available through Ticketmaster.