Ever since Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical theater version of the classic film Sunset Boulevard debuted in London in 1993, much of the press about the show has concerned numbers: Mounting the remake of Billy Wilder's sardonic, campy parable of Hollywood decadence and self-delusion cost $13 million; forgotten silent-film queen Norma Desmond's on-stage mansion, dominated by a massive central staircase, weighs seventeen tons; the actress playing Norma hauls herself up and down approximately 700 steps a week, 2800 steps a month, 33,000 steps a year; a pair of five-ton hydraulic lifts raises the mansion so that it hovers in midair; Norma changes costumes nine times with less than eighteen seconds for each change; one of her outfits shimmers with 2.5 million beads that required 600 hours to sew.
The first half of this extravaganza at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts (this season's Broadway Series opener) reveals why so much ink about Sunset has been devoted to digits. There's not much else to say about the insubstantial first act in which scenery, special effects, and haute couture dwarf the characters and story. Webber aficionados and diva devotees should not despair, however. By the second act of this over-produced spectacle, the thrill of levitating mansions and beaded loungewear subsides; actors Linda Balgord (Desmond), Ron Bohmer (screenwriter Joe Gillis, who becomes Desmond's kept man), and Ed Dixon (Max von Mayerling, Desmond's former husband turned butler) emerge from the shadows cast by ornately designed accoutrements to deliver performances that match the baroque excess of the staging.
Decades before the remake of Sunset was a grace note in Webber's commercially astute ear, the original Norma Desmond tried to turn the movie into a musical. Gloria Swanson played the prima donna in the macabre 1950 flick about an aging reclusive star who engages a disillusioned screenwriter to help her make a comeback; in 1955 Swanson hired an English writing duo to reshape the screenplay. With considerable changes that included a happy ending, Boulevard, as it was called, was slated to open in London. At the last minute Paramount Pictures, which owned the rights, pulled the permission plug, noting in a letter to Swanson that "it would be damaging to the property to be offered to the entertainment public in another form, as a stage musical."
By the time Webber was ready to marry Sunset's obsessive passions to his signature lush melodies, Paramount had loosened its grip on the rights. Ironically, the musical ultimately did open in London, under the auspices of a creative team with a pedigree worthy of a theatrical House of Lords. Joining composer Webber was director Trevor Nunn, who spearheaded the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) from 1968 to 1986 and directed Les Miserables and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. John Napier, associate designer of RSC, has designed such diverse productions as Miss Saigon (remember the helicopter landing on-stage?), Siegfried and Roy's show in Las Vegas, and the movie Hook. Oscar-winning designer Anthony Powell created costumes for the movies Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Tess; librettist-lyricist Don Black penned such hits as "Born Free," and Oscar-winning co-writer Christopher Hampton adapted Dangerous Liaisons for stage and screen.
Rather than damaging the integrity of the film, as Paramount feared would happen in Swanson's hands, Webber and company pay respects to the work by verbally and visually quoting from it throughout the show. Hampton and Black's book lifts lines from the screenplay verbatim ("I am big. It's the pictures that got small"). And Napier goes to great lengths to replicate infamous images (a convincingly rendered corpse floating facedown in a pool) and sequences (a car chase using actual footage from the film that looks as phony as the simulated car rides in amusement arcades). The efforts at homage backfire, however. The repetition of well-known lines in the broad context of a pop musical, coupled with inflated technical gestures, only turns the first act into a defanged ripoff of the movie.
At the center of the show stands Napier's staggering mansion; the stunning rendition of Desmond's creepy haunt is magnificent. Modeled on movie palaces of the Twenties, the imperial structure, burnished in tones of gold and brown, contains a staircase, a pipe organ, cathedral windows, and intricately detailed walls. Far more than do Webber's music and Hampton and Black's book and lyrics, the design goes a long way toward setting a Gothic tone for the show. In fact, the mansion sometimes seems like a character in itself -- a cloying, enveloping dragon lady that entraps Norma, Joe, and Max in her spell.
The problem with such an imposing edifice is that it upstages everything else. (On cue, it seems, the audience applauds when the set first appears and again when it rises.) The set particularly overpowers Balgord (who plays a nervous, breathy Norma) during her opening scenes. In addition, although Balgord has a strong and expressive singing voice, she initially appears less in command of her acting, as if the part of Norma controls her instead of the other way around.
In a 180-degree turnaround, Act Two manages to captivate in a way that Act One never does. The mansion still rises; Powell's fabulous costumes still glitter and sway. Yet, having made star entrances in the first half, these production elements now become supporting players as the actors take center stage.
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Bohmer, with his matinee-idol profile, self-possessed stage presence, and assured voice, opens the act by belting out the show's catchy title song; several scenes later Dixon, in a rich voice that ranges from bass to tenor, almost brings down the house with a touchingly ardent paean to Max and Norma's past in "New Ways to Dream." And Balgord finally takes charge of the role.
On the Paramount lot for a meeting with Cecil B. DeMille after years of being away (she arrives in the back seat of 3000-pound fiberglass replica of a 1932 Isotta-Fraschini; nothing short of a grand entrance in a remarkable prop allowed here), Balgord's Desmond glows with an energy that elucidates just who the woman is: someone with a deeply embedded need to work but who's been put out to pasture by the movie industry. Inside, on DeMille's movie set, Balgord recalls Norma's working life in "As If We Never Said Goodbye." With the opening notes of this moving number the ghosts of former Normas, from Patti LuPone to Glenn Close to Betty Buckley, are banished to the wings.
From that moment at the studio the show begins to shed its identity as a bad Billy Wilder imitation. By the end, Sunset Boulevard the musical has become a work that only Andrew Lloyd Webber could have created -- a popular opera featuring tragic characters that are larger than life. Unfortunately it takes too long to arrive at that place. Throughout most of the evening those characters and the dimensions of their tragedies are overwhelmed by a bloated production.
Sunset Boulevard. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton; directed by Trevor Nunn; with Linda Balgord, Ron Bohmer, Ed Dixon, and Lauren Kennedy. Through November 9. For information, call 954-462-0222 or see "Calendar Listings.