Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t your usual Music Theatre of Wichita feel-good summer fun.
Based on Billy Wilder’s 1950 noirish classic that pokes in the shadows beneath Hollywood’s glamour and glitz, it’s a dark, lush experience.
It’s virtually wall-to-wall music, bubbling along on a jazzy riff that bespeaks the hip 1950s and plunges into an evocative anthem about the grandeur of an earlier time. It has the approachability of a musical crossed with the gravitas of an opera. Music director Thomas W. Douglas makes good use of the largest orchestra this summer — 27 pieces — to ensure that we hear every unique twist and turn, from harp for dreamy effects to sax for brassy sass.
And this lavish production under the direction of Mark Madama, built by local designers, is remarkable and riveting. It also serves as the long-delayed Midwest premiere of the 1993 show.
“Sunset Boulevard” is a tale of madness, murder and misbegotten dreams of a forgotten star dangerously jolted out of her memories. She becomes primed for a comeback when a brash screenwriter stumbles into her delusions.
Broadway veteran Ann Morrison is brilliant as Norma Desmond, the silent film star who couldn’t transition to talkies and retreated to her mansion to watch her movies and relive past glories.
Morrison has a powerful, precise soprano that can lilt and lull you, but then pin you to your seat in a fit of belting rage. She is a grand presence you can’t get enough of. Morrison plays Norma as imperious but not intentionally mean. She is pathetic but sympathetic. She is sweetly ridiculous in her dramatic gestures, but you never question the character’s dignity. Morrison slips skillfully between dangerous passion and deadly madness, and holds us in her grasp wondering what she’ll do next.
Chris Peluso gives a powerhouse performance as gigolo screenwriter Joe Gillis, who uses Norma’s generosity, then comes to genuinely care for her. Peluso is loose and lanky as he glides and sprints about the stage as our guide to this tale. His baritone blasts out a showcase ballad to seedy “Sunset Boulevard” as well as teaming for romantic turns in delightful “Boy Meets Girl” and beautiful “Too Much in Love to Care.”
Veteran Broadway and opera star Nicholas F. Saverine plays Max, Norma’s faithful and overprotective butler. He is skeptical of letting Joe into her life, but then goes along with it when he sees how happy it makes her. Saverine — whose Max has his own deep, dark secret — has one of the most beautiful, haunting and difficult songs in “The Greatest Star of All.” He absolutely nails it with all its nuances, giving us chills. Kaleigh Cronin as Betty, a screenwriter who attracts Joe’s eye and sparks Norma’s jealous rage, gives a breezy, feisty, memorable performance. She has a natural stage presence and strong voice, her duets full and spot-on.
The multi-layered sets by J. Branson move easily and silently to create everything from a Paramount Studios sound stage to a back lot to Norma’s Spanish palazzo with soaring staircase, pipe organ and huge arched windows. David Neville’s lighting and shadows tremendously enhance the spooky old mansion while providing unusual, dabbled special effects.
And George T. Mitchell’s gorgeous costumes evoke both sleek 1950s and musty 1920s. Norma’s gowns, particularly, are a wow, telling a story of their own. She appears in mourning black (albeit with sequins), then in elegant purple brocade as Joe comes into her life, then in golden orange with red trim as she blossoms with new life.
If You Go:
What: Third show of 40th anniversary season for Music Theatre of Wichita
Where: Century II Concert Hall Additional performances: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $22-$57 evenings, $20-$49 matinees (discounts for seniors, students, military and groups); call 316-265-3107 or go online at www.musictheatreofwichita.org.
We want to know what you think of the show. Visit this story at Kansas.com/entertainment to post your review.
Actress Ann Morrison says she relishes playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.” Read her interview at Kansas.com/entertainment