Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" technically turns 20 this year, but the endeavor to create a musical version of the Billy Wilder film began almost as soon as the movie was finished. In its final production of the 2012-13 season, Drury Lane offers a visually impressive rendition, backed by a number of solid performances, but the talent of the cast and design team can't ultimately overcome the lackluster material.
Legal wrangling between Gloria Swanson and Paramount derailed an early effort at a musical adaptation, and according to a 1998 Billy Wilder biography by Ed Sikov, Stephen Sondheim abandoned an attempt after a conversation with Wilder in which the director declared that any such work must be an opera.
Although Webber's interpretation is arguably the composer's most operatic work, the end product is disjointed and unsatisfying, suggesting that either Wilder was wrong or Webber wasn't the man for the job.
Unlike most of Webber's offerings, "Sunset Boulevard" has few show-stopping numbers that solidify character and tone in the minds of the audience. The show opens with a long, expository prologue that segues into a repetitive ensemble number meant to convey bright, superficial chaos of the Paramount lot.
Norma's first big number doesn't land until more than half an hour into the show, and by then it's clear that "Sunset Boulevard" is neither this nor that: Neither the composition nor the execution of the dramatic arc qualifies it as an opera, nor is it a standard-issue ALW crowd-pleaser.
Nonetheless, Drury Lane's production has a number of features to recommend it, first and foremost is Scott Davis's scenic design. A bare, industrial catwalk above, with staircases descending to either side, suggests a proscenium. The colonnade denoting both the interior and exterior of Norma's mansion underscores the theme of theatricality.
Davis' design is otherwise uncluttered and effective. It uses a minimum of lush set pieces, Theresa Ham's perfect costuming, and Rick Jarvie's wig and makeup design to imply Norma's faded opulence without jeopardizing the show's pacing.
The set benefits greatly from Rita Pietraszek's lighting, which employs subtle shifts to distinguish between Norma's performances and more genuine moments, and the critical ones that evoke her life on the silver screen.
Although Mike Tutaj's projection designs have brought depth and beauty to a number of recent productions in the Chicago area, his work here is uneven. Contributions like the "Mad Men"-infused image of Joe's body floating on the fractured surface of Norma's pool are striking, but a series of stills of the actors set against moving scene projections are unintentionally amusing.
The leads are more than capable, both vocally and dramatically. Their performances are not unqualified successes across the board, however, and it's unclear whether that's a matter of unsteady direction by William Osetek or the poverty of the show's book.
The good news is that Christine Sherrill as Norma Desmond is great from top to bottom. Appropriately, Norma's makeup and costumes are omnipresent set pieces. Sherrill's enormous voice and slight figure, paired with the striking visual design of the character, give her the freedom to draw back in her performance, humanizing Norma in well-chosen, smaller vignettes.
Will Ray is likable as Joe Gillis, and he handles some of the more thankless vocal material well. Furthermore, his early chemistry with Dara Cameron as Betty effectively builds that part of the ill-fated writer's story. His rapport with Sherrill is less satisfying, though. The audience never gets the sense that he is at all charmed by Norma or anything in her world.
There is no suggestion, even, that any element of her bizarre, secluded existence draws his writer's eye. Whether this was a directorial choice or Ray's decision, or whether the adaptation that hollows out the original characters, the result is a major hit to Joe's viability as a sympathetic character.
Cameron's bright voice and sparkling portrayal make her Betty an effective foil for Shirrell's Norma and a welcome breath of romance in an otherwise unrelentingly dark show.
Adrian Aguilar's strong performance as Artie builds on the dynamic between Ray and Cameron to make the love triangle a more intriguing part of the plot than it might otherwise be. Unfortunately for both actors, the moment that Betty and Joe confront their feelings is oddly blocked and badly paced, squandering their chemistry. The fact that "Too Much in Love to Care" is entirely forgettable, both musically and lyrically, doesn't help.
In the supporting cast, Don Richard is impressively mannered as Max von Mayerling, though the show's book doesn't give him much to do other than lurk. Likewise, Jonathan Weir's warm, but acerbic Cecil B. DeMille leaves the audience wishing for more material for the actor.
"Sunset Boulevard" runs through March 24 at Drury Lane, 100 Drury Lane, in Oakbrook, Ill. For info or tickets, call (630) 530-0111 or visit drurylaneoakbrook.com/live_theatre/now_playing.php)