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Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

Norma Desmond (Gina Handy) tangoes with Joe Gillis (Chris Shea) in Short North Stage’s production of Sunset Boulevard (photo by Heather Wack)

By Richard Ades

One of Sunset Boulevard’s two most famous lines comes early on. When a struggling writer stumbles into Norma Desmond’s Hollywood mansion and tells her she “used to be big,” the former silent-film star replies: “I’m still big. It’s the movies that got small.”

Movies may or may not be smaller nowadays, but movie-based stage musicals are often extravaganzas. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film certainly was. In fact, the 1994 Broadway production was so expensive that it ran for more than two years and still managed to lose millions.

Short North Stage’s production isn’t quite that big, but it’s still huge by Columbus standards. Michael Brewer’s two-story set effectively stands in for Norma’s grandiose mansion and other locations, with help from video segments projected on two large screens. Moreover, music director P. Tim Valentine’s offstage band is sizable enough to handle Webber’s soaring score.

If director Scott Hunt’s staging fails to consistently match the power of Wilder’s classic, it’s partly because the nourish film is tricky source material for a stage musical. Just the right touch is needed to carry off its blend of cynicism, desperation and passion.

One problem is that leading lady Gina Handy only occasionally projects the brittle mixture of grandiosity and insecurity that marks Norma Desmond, an ex-celeb who clings to the belief that the world is eager for her return. At Thursday’s preview performance, Handy also was decidedly pitchy on her first big solo (Surrender), though her voice was better on later, quieter numbers.

Jarod Wilson’s bland lighting design is another disappointment. This tale of a woman lost in the caverns of her ego-driven delusions cries out for uber-dramatic lighting effects, and it seldom gets them.

Most of the cast does strike the right chords, beginning with Chris Shea as Joe Gillis, the struggling screenwriter who wanders into Norma’s abode and ends up falling under her dangerous spell. Perhaps Shea could project a bit more world-weariness as Joe, who has become tired of the ass-kissing it takes to prosper in Hollywood, but he has no trouble earning our attention and concern.

As Max, Norma’s mysterious butler, Christopher Moore Griffin is appropriately reserved and sings with the show’s deepest, richest voice. The only drawback is that Max’s lyrics sometimes get buried under a droning German accent, so a little more enunciation would be helpful.

The fourth major character, script editor Betty Schaeffer, is played by Cassie Rae. The perky blonde proved in Short North Stage’s early-2014 production of A Grand Night for Singing that she’s a charismatic performer with an irresistible voice. She proves it again here, to the extent that Betty’s growing affection for Joe becomes one of the show’s strongest threads.

Smaller parts are divided among a group of worthy actors who each play multiple roles. Doug Joseph, for example, portrays “Finance Man #1” in addition to legendary director Cecil B. DeMille.

Of the nearly sung-through musical’s two acts, Act 2 is stronger, as it contains several dramatic payoffs. They include the show’s other famous line, Norma’s surreal announcement that she’s ready for her close-up.

Surprisingly, this is the first time we see clearly just how many years separate Norma from the glamorous, youthful image she carries around in her head. Up until then, she’s appeared to be little older than the writer who’s joined her household.

If only she’d posed for that close-up a couple of hours earlier, the depths of her delusion would have been easier to understand.

Short North Stage will present Sunset Boulevard through Oct. 19 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.

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