By Bill Brotherton
BEVERLY — Time is a cruel mistress, especially for Hollywood actresses. An actor can be a tub of lard and look constantly hungover, and filmmakers will still come calling. But heaven forbid a woman sports a single wrinkle or gray hair. She’ll be relegated to the scrap heap before you can say “tummy tuck.”
Such is the case of Norma Desmond, the 50-year-old faded star of silent films at the center of “Sunset Boulevard,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber Tony Award winner commanding the stage at North Shore Music Theatre.
Based on Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 black comedy/drama, which starred Gloria Swanson and William Holden, “Sunset Boulevard” is about hopes, wishes and dreams in the early days of Hollywood. Desmond (played by Alice Ripley) lives in a fantasy world and falsely believes that her fans are clamoring for her return to film. When Joe Gillis (Nicholas Rodriguez), a desperate writer who can’t find work, happens into Desmond’s mansion he is convinced to stay to edit Norma’s voluminous script that she’s certain will lead to her successful return in front of the camera. Joe is seduced by her and her luxurious lifestyle, and when he tries to break free all hell breaks loose.
Everything about this production is spectacular.
Let’s start with the cast. Director/choreographer Kevin P. Hill is blessed to have exceptionally talented performers in the four lead roles.
Ripley, 55, may be playing a faded star, but her star blazes brightly here. She’s on stage for nearly the entire show, and she’s captivating in every scene. Her vocals are filled with emotion: the ballad “As If We Never Said Goodbye” will bring a lump to your throat. Ripley’s acting skills are strong; her Norma can switch from loving and demure to needy and nasty in a split second. For much of the show, you’re never quite sure if her Norma is causing drama and using emotional blackmail to selfishly keep Joe around or if she’s delusional and mentally ill? The shocking climax will answer those questions.
Twenty-five years ago Ripley was on this very stage, appearing in “Sweeney Todd.” That led to her first major role on Broadway in 1994, as young screenwriter Betty Schaefer in the Glenn Close-led “Sunset Boulevard,” and a 2009 Tony win for best performance by a leading actress in a musical for the rock opera “Next to Normal.”
Rodriguez as kept man Joe is a content prisoner of love who becomes accustomed to the finer things in life that Norma can provide. When young, enthusiastic aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer (played by Lizzie Klemperer) says she wants to turn one of his old stories into a screenplay, Joe is less than motivated. That changes when he realizes he’s fallen in love with her. Rodriguez and Klemperer, who played Eponine in 2004’s “Les Miserables” at NSMT, are both fine singers and share great chemistry. Rodriguez has been at NSMT twice before, playing the prince in 2005’s “Cinderella” and Jesus in 2006’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
(Fun fact: Ripley created the role of Betty in the original 1994 Broadway production of “Sunset Boulevard.”)
William Michals is riveting as Max Von Mayerling, Norma’s manservant. His singing, especially during “The Greatest Star of All,” is rich, nuanced and powerful. He received loud applause during the curtain call.
Neal Mayer is great as a sympathetic Cecil B. DeMille. His “Surrender” is a musical highlight: “If you could have seen when all her dreams were new” he affectionately sings.
Kevin Massey, as Betty’s fiance, and Robert Saoud, as agent Sheldrake, are sure and steady throughout. The ensemble is wonderful, especially during a lively, rollicking New Year’s Eve party scene where these characters share their dreams for Hollywood success in “This Time Next Year.”
The incredible, massive set is a star in its own right. Taking up the space usually reserved for one-sixth of the theater’s seats, it’s a tarnished hulk of a mansion that is as faded as its owner. And when an enormous classic antique convertible car rolls onto the stage during a second act scene, you’ll “ooh” and “aah.”
The wardrobe department has exceeded its usual high standards. The exquisite suits and dresses capture the styles of the 1940s, as do the classy formal clothes worn by the cast.
There’s creative use of black and white video, and some 100 black-and-white “vintage” photos of Ripley’s Norma Desmond by Lynnfield’s Steven Richard encircle the theater-in-the-round. The use of lighting is remarkable, as well. The mansion is dark and gloomy, illuminated only by candlelight. Rays of sunshine never enter the decaying home. Yet every scene that’s not in the mansion, is bright and vibrant and cheery.
Simply put, “Sunset Boulevard” is one of the finest productions I’ve seen at North Shore Music Theatre. To paraphrase the film/musical’s best-known line, Ripley, the rest of the cast and NSMT’s creative team are more than ready for their close-up.