There’s noir, and then there’s the darkness engulfing the once famous silent screen star Norma Desmond. Her story — first told in Billy Wilder’s 1950 movie classic “Sunset Boulevard” — is one of blinding spotlights, abruptly snuffed out.
Norma’s vanity is definitely present in Hollis Resnik’s portrayal of the actress in Porchlight Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard,” which opened Wednesday night at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts. But there’s so much more in director Michael Weber’s staging of the musical adapted from Wilder’s film by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Christopher Hampton and Don Black (book and lyrics).
To be sure, the plot hews closely to the film: Once the most luminous star in the earliest years of Hollywood, Norma is divorced from reality primarily because her vanity won’t let accept the fact that she’s not a dewy-eyed ingenue anymore (she’s somewhere around 50 when the tale begins). She lives, hidden away from the world in her Sunset Boulevard estate, hoping an (atrocious) screenplay she has penned will make her the star she was before the talkies banished silent films to the dust heap.
When aspiring writer Joe Gillis (Billy Rude) pulls into her garage in a frantic attempt to keep his car from being repossessed, Norma decides he can help finish her “Salome” script. He’s broke, she’s desperate: It’s not long before scriptwriting sessions morph into a romance she believes in and he tolerates because he has no where else to turn. When Joe later starts working on one of his own scripts with the young, idealistic script editor Betty (Michelle Lauto), Norma’s desperation pulls all three of them into a web with no easy escape.
Before the inevitable tragedy (no spoiler: the show opens in the wake of a murder) there’s a scene on a Paramount Studios backlot, where Norma is convinced she’ll make a triumphant return to stardom. It’s a silent moment perfectly fitting a silent film star: Norma’s in a spotlight, gazing in wonder at the make-believe surrounding her. Resnik makes it crystalline clear that this is the only place Norma feels — has ever felt — loved. It’s the home she’s lost forever. It’s wrenching, to say the least.
To be sure, Norma spends the show teetering on the edge of the kind of madness it’s tough to return from. But there’s a humanity to Resnik’s performance that’s recognizable, even in the extremities of Norma’s delusion. Resnik no longer has the soaring high notes that helped make her 40-plus years career. But even dropping down the occasional octave, she wrestles the score to the ground and makes it hers.
Rude is marvelous as Joe, the would-be screenwriter who has been in Hollywood just long enough to curdle his own dreams. Rude’s Joe is cynical from the start, and by the time he launches into the title tune that opens the second act, he’s made bitter peace with selling his soul and his body for a swimming pool and an expensive wardrobe. As vocals go, Rude is in his prime, never more so than in that haunting and angry “Sunset Boulevard.”
As Betty, Michelle Lauto brings lovely vocals and depth to an underwritten role and serves as a sunny contrast to Norma’s manipulative darkness. As Norma’s servant Max, Larry Adams (whose voice is as rich and sonorous as the massive organ in Norma’s manse) captures the character’s ferocious loyalty to “Madam.”
Weber’s detailed direction vividly captures clashing visions of Hollywood, such as when Anthony Churchill’s projection design shows the “Hollywoodland” sign that stood until 1949 toppling to become the iconic “Hollywood” that stands today in the hills overlooking Los Angeles. It’s a striking reminder of Norma’s lost world, and a reminder of how easily Hollywood chews up and spits out stars and unknowns alike. In a bit of marvelous innovation, Weber has cast Mandy Modic as Young Norma, a silent dancer with the revolutionary grace of Isadora Duncan and sultry innocence of Clara Bow.
Jeff Kmiec’s marvelously cinematic set contrasts the expansive, empty grandeur of Norma’s mansion with the youthful bustle of Schwab’s Pharmacy. The ensemble could use a few more players, but Shanna VanDerwerker’s choreography creates a story for every “extra” on the set.
Joe Gillis understands that dreams always come with hidden dragons, especially in an industry built on monetizing dreams for mass-production. “Sunset Boulevard” peels back the curtain on the dream factory. It isn’t pretty. But then as “Sunset Boulevard” so brutally shows, prioritizing prettiness can lead down a dark path.
Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.