Sunset Boulevard: Big Dreams Crammed Into a Small Space by Bayou City Theatrics

Edith Maldonado as Norma Desmond.
Edith Maldonado as Norma Desmond.
Photo by Bayou City Theatrics Staff

The set-up:

Audacious. Obsessive. Crazed.

This describes silent movie star Norma Desmond, neurotic center of Andrew Lloyd Webber's epic musical adaptation of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett's classic 1950 noir tribute to old Hollywood. Or it could equally apply to Bayou City Theatrics and its current production of said Sir Andrew's Sunset Boulevard (1993). Both star and production are slightly tattered and faded, but with an indomitable will to survive. The only way Norma makes a “return” to the screen is going full steam ahead. Damn those pesky icebergs. She doesn't know “no.” Wealthy and seductive, she's dangerously nuts.

The execution:

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There's a lot of Norma in Bayou City Theatrics. They don't know “no” either. Fortunately they're not dangerous, but a little bit loopy nonetheless. This three-year-old company, headed by Colton Berry, is limitless in its desire to put on a show. Every other week, it seems, they're producing another one. This year alone they've done Metamorphoses, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, South Pacific, Jesus Christ Superstar, and The Wiz. Not even the touring pros at Broadway at the Hobby program such riches. Like the Little Engine That Could, BCT goes for the gold, plugging away undaunted by the challenges. Like Norma, they dream big.

Imaginatively designed on a shoestring budget, this show makes use of every inch of the bowling alley space, rejiggered from one of those turn-of-the-century banks still extant downtown. Long and narrow, deeper than it is wide, without any wing space to speak of, the stage hampers large movement as performers, especially a chorus line, must be aligned in tiers. The space can get so crowded, actors must exit sideways.

Sunset Boulevard is not a small work. It's epic, like golden age Hollywood, making use of a grand old mansion (Norma's abode and refuge), the surrounding streets of Los Angeles, the studio backlot, and the cavernous sound stages of Paramount during the making of Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah. In the original Broadway production, Norma's fortress with its grand staircase rose from below stage, making its own dramatic star turn. It was a wow of an effect. (The musical and its set and star [Glenn Close] won Tonys). It's fun to see how cleverly BCT handles the spectacle. The staircase is way upstage, not palatial, but there it is, flanked with a gargantuan portrait of Norma in her prime that dominates the space. Silver framed photographs of the star cover the walls; peacock feathers and displays of flowers decorate urns. It looks plush indeed, revealed first behind drapes that serve as a screen for movie projections.

I wish they had used more film. We will not inform Turner Classic Movies that BCT has pilfered the opening scenes from Wilder's classic movie – Joe eluding the repo men or floating dead in the pool – but its gives the enterprise a noir look right from the start. But why stop there? Why not a photo of the temple of Dagon set from S&D to add glamour and spectacle to the scene when Norma visits C.B. in hopes of persuading the master director to make her comeback movie? Now, the scene's played against those blah drapes, without atmosphere. When Betty rushes over to the mansion to confront Joe, we're given an endless loop of a car driving on the highway that stops the story's momentum deader than Joe will wind up.

The show mimics the Wilder film down to lines of dialogue in the lyrics, and Webber's tricky rhythms need all the clarity the actors can muster. They could muster more. When they turn away from us, in some dodgy staging, we lose what they're singing. Sometimes, when they staring straight out at us, they don't project enough. The offstage orchestra of six is much too loud and could use a few more hours of rehearsal. Everyone could. I think that's the bane of BCT, too much, too fast, and no time for finesse.

John Watkins, as struggling screen writer Joe Gillis (played by William Holder in the movie) does a fine job of portraying the scheming average Joe drawn ever tighter and inexorably into Norma's web. He sings Webber's belting pop numbers, especially the inky “Sunset Boulevard” with bite. Snappy and smart ass, he assumes delusional Norma will be an easy mark; he'll write her corny screenplay in a few weeks and be able to pay the rent. What he doesn't figure on is Norma. She has plans of her own. When she falls in love with Joe, his fate is sealed.

In her outre turbans and gold lamé, Edith Maldonado easily conjures another era. She's a glamorous black widow. Her character mirrors Gloria Swanson's iconic interpretation from the movie, but without that star's innate radiance. Maldonado purrs seductively or wails in melodrama, but there's no middle. She can't be all crazy or all angry all the time, or Joe wouldn't fall so readily into the trap. She must ease him in with the same suavity Joe uses to wrangle the job. She carries her torch songs like a pro, though. Her “With One Look,” “New Ways to Dream,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” some of Webber's most grand operatic arias since Phantom, are deeply felt. She beguiles us, too.

Will Ledesma, as Norma's valet and former husband and director Max, brings a somewhat spooky presence, but no self-respecting chauffeur would wear such an ill-fitting uniform. He sings the dreamy anthem “The Greatest Star of All” with appropriate relish. Nicole Norton, as aspiring writer Betty who also falls for Joe, has a creamy, if soft, soprano and has innocent appeal in her duet “Too Much in Love to Care” and the expository “Girl Meets Boy.”

The verdict:
Webber, assisted by Don Black and Christopher Hampton on book and lyrics, swathes Wilder's cynical movie in its own Grand Guignol tapestry. The jazzy score echoes the sardonic wit, while Webber's ripe lyricism echoes the faded glamour and lost dreams of deluded Norma. The show has never played in Houston, so we applaud BCT for bringing it to us with imagination and plenty of chutzpah. Like Norma, the production still possesses tantalizing hints of its former glory.

Sunset Boulevard continues through June 27 at The Kaleidoscope, 705 Main Street, entrance on Capitol. Purchase tickets online at bayoucitytheatrics.com or call 832-817-8656. $35-$40.


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