By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 19, 2010; 10:30 PM
When Florence Lacey's Norma Desmond steps uncertainly into the spotlight on the Hollywood sound stage in "Sunset Boulevard" and sings the first notes of "As If We Never Said Goodbye," Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1994 musical is putting its best foot forward. Lacey gets absolutely right the underlying fragility of this raging egomaniac, engaged in retrospective exultation over her triumphs as a silent-movie queen.
Backed, too, by the vibrant sounds of the 20-piece orchestra that Signature Theatre heroically has assembled for the occasion, her voice proves satisfyingly up to handling the show's most resonant emotional moment, one in which Norma's doomed plan for making a comeback explodes into exhilarating melody.
Lacey and director Eric Schaeffer deserve a lot of credit for guiding Norma to such a fulfilling juncture, one that rightly prompts an audience to cheer. (She does equally well with Norma's earlier declaration of self-adoration, "With One Look.") But aside from the copious thrills of Norma's big numbers, Lloyd Webber has devised an only so-so entertainment. The weakness can be traced to a score that comes up short on inspiration: The evening consists of endlessly recycled musical motifs and, from writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton, some of the most tortured lyrics ever attached to the pop composer's tunes.
Signature is rolling out "Sunset Boulevard" for its long-stalled Washington premiere, and the company ties the show up in some handsome bows. Daniel Conway's sets make superb use of the 276-seat main stage - is this the smallest theater "Sunset" has ever played? - and Kathleen Geldard's costumes becomingly evoke the setting's mid-century styles. Conway's best idea has to do with the placement of that grand orchestra. Perching the musicians on a balcony behind the set, he creates the illusion that they exist in the dark interior of Norma's mansion: Panels divide to reveal conductor Jon Kalbfleisch and his many players, obscured slightly by ornate grillwork. This Norma really does live in deluxe seclusion!
The musical, based on director Billy Wilder's 1950 noir classic, has been a magnet for singing actresses eager to put new stamps on the role Gloria Swanson made mythic. Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige all tried on Norma in London and New York, with varying results. Although it ran for 2 1/2 years on Broadway and won the Tony for best musical, "Sunset" was never more than a middling achievement. The award came in a parched mid-90s season for new musicals - the only other nominee in the category was the jukebox show "Smokey Joe's Cafe" - and Lloyd Webber's monster hits, "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera," had been running for years and were still going strong over the span in which "Sunset" came and went.
Mirroring its source, the musical uses the device of the murder of a down-and-out screenwriter to chart the madness of a onetime movie idol, and the macabre retirement she has fashioned for herself with her lumbering ghoul of a manservant, Max (Ed Dixon, in a marvelously brooding turn). The arrival at her doorstep of Joe Gillis (D.B. Bonds), a good-looking young writer who hasn't been able to rustle up a break in Tinseltown, invigorates Norma. She recruits Joe both to freshen up the star vehicle she's written - a new version of "Salome" that's supposed to reignite her career - and to join her in bed.
"Sunset" is such thick melodramatic soup, and Norma so ripe for camping it up, that an actress has to be careful not to turn her into a ludicrous joke. Admirably, Lacey avoids the traps, and although she's not the most innately glamorous actress to have portrayed her, she ably conveys the core of who Norma is: a vain bundle of neuroses and insecurities. With Dixon's help, Lacey pulls off that gothic final scene, when Norma, drowning in her delusions, descends the staircase to face her beloved cameras - and a gaggle of cops and police reporters.
Far less rewarding are the long stretches of "Sunset" that are supposed to give us the jaundiced view of Hollywood shared by Joe and his striving generation of bit players and scribes aching for a few rays of the limelight. (The love story that is supposed to fire up Norma's homicidal rage, between Joe and a studio functionary played by Susan Derry, is rather meek.) A monotony creeps in, attributable in part to the exasperating degree to which the composer repeats the same musical phrases over and over and over again.
If the idea is to infuse the proceedings with the sense of how musical themes work to heighten emotion, as in the scoring of a film, the concept might have been more effective if the songs themselves demonstrated a more sophisticated approach to lyrics. Often the rhymes don't scan or feel overworked: "Maugham owns" and "hormones" are the sort to which the lyricists frequently resort. A laudable attempt at sophistication, but a groaner.
Vocally, Schaeffer's "Sunset" is solid, with Bonds turning out a particularly potent rendition of the title song. The opportunities for dance are minimal, but the fluid staging of musical numbers by choreographer Karma Camp helps with a fuss-free advance of the narrative. The impression left is that Schaeffer, Lacey, Kalbfleisch and company do pretty much everything in their power to serve Lloyd Webber's vision. It's the limitations of that vision that let them down.
Sunset Boulebard music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Matt Rowe; video design, Matthew Gardiner; choreography, Karma Camp; music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch. With J. Fred Shiffman, Matt Conner, Stephen Gregory Smith, Harry A. Winter, Sean Thompson, Jake Odmark, Kirstin Riegler, Kara-Tameika Watkins, Matthew Wojtal, Gia Mora, Madeline Botteri, Sandy Bainum, William Diggle, Rebecca Fale. About 2 Â½ hours. Through Feb. 13 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.