“Let me take you back six months,” J.C. McCann invites the audience at the start of Venture Theatre’s compelling new musical “Sunset Boulevard.”
It is a cheeky moment with the chorus musically chiming in with Hollywood clichés like “got to run,” and “let’s have lunch,” but you sense that the darkness coming.
The show examines the downward spiral of McCann’s character, Joe Gillis, as the young screenwriter mixes with a fading diva, the fictional silent film star Norma Desmond. Susan Kennedy Sommerfeld embodies Norma with such authenticity that you have to constantly remind yourself this isn’t Sommerfeld’s own fate as an actress — to lose her mind along with her career. Sommerfeld's pitch-perfect vocals and ability to mix swagger and insanity in this sad role bring an intensity to her scenes.
At first, it is Gillis’ story, but Norma sucks us into her deranged world. It becomes the story of a suicidal diva desperate to restart her career by writing a screenplay for a role that she can star in as a 16-year-old. Gillis is enlisted to edit the script and eventually he becomes Norma’s “boy toy.”
Venture’s set, designed by Amber Felker, creates the shabby grandeur of Norma's rundown mansion with piles of red satin and velvet and a grand staircase with twisted metal ironwork for railings.
Felker’s set at Venture mimics Norma’s silk-coated exterior, but both have dark shadows lurking beneath the surface. One reviewer called the 1950 movie that the musical is based on, “the ‘Psycho of film noir,” and that perfectly captures the feel of this production, which intrigued Andrew Lloyd Webber into turning it into a musical, first produced in 1993 in London. The show won a slew of Tony Awards when it hit New York stages in 1995 with Glenn Close playing Norma.
Webber’s music in “Sunset Boulevard” is reminiscent of the melodies in “Phantom of the Opera,” particularly in Vincent Raye’s numbers as the butler Max, who we find out in Act II is really someone else. Myra Nurre plays a feisty screenwriter Betty and Sam Herbert adds strong vocals to the role of Artie.
Director Robert Wood described the action in the show as a series of cliffhangers. He said he struggled to overcome the challenge of bringing the film noir quality to the stage without making it feel overly dramatic. Mission accomplished.
Fully staged productions of the complex musical are rare, due to the expense of the set and royalties.
Venture initially chose to produce the show in a concert version, but switched mid-stream and turned it into a full musical because Wood was so impressed with the vocals. It has a weekend run with shows Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call 591-9535 for tickets.