Beware of Dark, Operatic Turns Along ‘Sunset Blvd’ as Moonlight Swaps Ariel for Norma

A few weeks ago, families were singing along with bubbly Ariel under the sea in  Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The summer hit sold more tickets than any other show in Moonlight Stage Productions history.

In sharp contrast, viewers are riding along with crazy Norma around Hollywood in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Blvd.  She lives in a demented fantasy world.

Valerie Perri plays fading film star Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Blvd. at Moonlight Amphitheatre.

Based on the 1950 film noir classic by Billy Wilder, the musical on view through Sept. 2 is a hit with mature audiences who appreciate a good tragedy. Themes about choices and consequences, ageism and deceit, are darkly humorous and director Larry Raben weaves them all together with full Broadway orchestrations and a strong cast.

Valerie Perri is striking as Norma Desmond, a silent-screen goddess who couldn’t transition to the “talkies” and desperate to return to the screen.  In the role made famous by Patti LuPone and Glenn Close, she hides in her mansion on Sunset Blvd. and hits the big notes in “Surrender” and “With one Look.” She makes us cry when singing about her starring role as the teen aged beauty Salome. Sorry sweetheart, you’re too old.

Fans of the film will admire Perri’s portrayal of Norma unhinged, and her outlandish wardrobe, though they may gripe about Perri appearing too youthful for the role and not dangerous enough.

Or maybe it’s not her, it’s him. She seduces and entraps struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, who appears middle aged as played by Robert J. Townsend. He sings countless arias and seems like a nice guy, but no, he’s fooling around with the younger Betty (Katie Sapper) who is engaged to Artie. It’s not going to end well.

Robert J. Townsend as Joe Gillis, and Valerie Perri as Norma Desmond, have a volatile relationship. Norman Large as Max the butler keeps watch from the shadows.

For the original film, actress Gloria Swanson tapped her personal life to create this chilling drama. She was one of the greatest stars of early Hollywood and made the switch from Silent to Talkies. Audiences flocked to see her extravagant clothing with beads and feathers, but her career nearly ended when she was 39. She married several times and had affairs galore, and was in her 50s when she took the role of Norma, the story of a star discarded.

Hollywood remains obsessed with youth and Sunset Blvd resonates.

Perri and Townsend as Norma and Joe could be that toxic couple living up the street. The word enabler wasn’t around in the 1950s, but Norman Large as Max is outstanding as Norma’s butler, driver, and biggest enabler.  When he sings “The Greatest Star of All,” expect to weep. Large has Broadway and opera pipes and delivers a commanding performance.

Lloyd Webber’s music is masterful and conductor Kenneth Gammie directs with aplomb. However, the film to musical transition can’t avoid a few bumps.  In the opening scene, we see trench coats and a crime scene around a swimming pool.  We listen to gritty voices and wham, they switch to sotto voce, where singers half speak and sing.   When Joe Gillis’s narration from the film gets translated to song, our brains have to shift from organic dialogue to opera mode and it’s not automatic. There are times when we want them to stop singing and talk.

Operatic and tragic, Sunset Blvd. under the stars is a serious theatre experience that lingers.  When driving home, you’ll repeat the famous line, “I’m ready for my close up” and recall images of Joe being chased by thugs on a dark Sunset Blvd.

Car chase projections, movie sets, vintage costumes, and salty language plant the fable in the past. We laugh and squirm because the drama and conclusion seem ripped from today’s headlines.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Blvd. continues through Sept. 2 at Moonlight Amphitheatre. 760-724-2110.

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