Monday, February 6, 2023

REVIEW: Sunset Boulevard (Kennedy Center)

Review of the matinee performance on Sunday, February 5, 2023 at the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Starring Stephanie J. Block, Derek Klena, Nathan Gunn, Auli'i Cravalho, Paul Schoeffler and Michael Maliakel. Based on the Billy Wilder Film. Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Scenic and projection design by Paul Tate dePoo III. Costume design by Alejo Vietti. Lighting design by Cory Pattak. Sound design by Kai Harada and Haley Parcher. Music direction by Ben Cohn. Choreography by Emily Maltby. Direction by Sammi Cannold. 2 hours 40 minutes, including one intermission. 
This production closed on Wednesday, February 8, 2023.

Grade: A+

D.C.'s answer to New York's Encores! series is The Kennedy Center's Broadway Center Stage, an annual trio of musicals that are put together in a matter of days and performed for a week or so. The current offering is Sunset Boulevard which is much more than a "staged reading," and closer to a fully realized production. 

For me, there were two big reasons to see this revival: it is my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber score, and I just had to see what Tony-winner Stephanie J. Block would do with the delicious role of Norma Desmond. Those two reasons were more than justified. The 21-piece orchestra under the skilled baton of Ben Cohn is glorious, bringing out the nuance of each motif and the broad ebb and flow of Webber's lush melodies. And Ms. Block simply does not disappoint with her epic star turn. 

A complex mix of narcissism, self-involvement and delusions of grandeur, her Norma is also very witty - Block mines comedy in places I'd never thought likely throughout Black and Hampton's book. What is particularly excellent about this more funny take is that it helps to endear her to the audience, and, in turn makes her final descent into madness all the more touching. She also sings the hell out of the score, particularly in her two big numbers, "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye," but also in quieter moments like "Surrender" and "New Ways to Dream." When she throws back her head to belt, "I've come hooome at llaaaasst" we are witness to musical theater bliss. I've seen several Normas over the years, and I can say she is possibly second only to Betty Buckley. It is really a shame this run is so short. Her star turn is one for the ages.

Nathan Gunn as Max is equal parts foreboding cipher and mysterious caretaker. His operatic, booming voice literally shook me in my seat during "The Greatest Star of All." Michael Maliakel charms as Artie Green, while Paul Schoeffler gives a strong, yet sweetly paternal performance as Cecil B. DeMille.

Perhaps the closest thing to a casting misstep here is 
Auli'i Cravalho, who seemed like a rather ingenue-by-numbers Betty Schaeffer. Compared to everyone else, she was pretty bland; acceptable, but not much more. Perhaps she just needs more time to settle in and grow. She struggled with the higher notes in "This Time Next Year." That said, there were glimmers of a fully fleshed out character, especially in Betty's scenes with Joe Gillis, where she was engaged, nuanced and very well sung - their duet, "Too Much in Love to Care," was second act vocal highlight. 

Speaking of Joe Gillis, the biggest surprise here was the exceptional performance of one Derek Klena. I have always enjoyed his work previously, but it is really great to see him play an adult. A magnetic presence throughout, Mr. Klena does some truly amazing heavy lifting: he brings out the very best in Ms. Cravalho, and has absolutely steamy chemistry with Ms. Block. He also, by far, delivers the best sung and acted Gillis I've seen - perhaps even definitive. (I may just have to re-visit Moulin Rouge! when he returns.) And let me say that for the first time, the title song is a genuine aria.

In terms of design, Alejo Vietti's lavish costume design matches the glamour of the piece, and Cory Pattak's lighting is quite dramatic, alternately colorful and darkly moody. Kai Harada and Haley Parcher do a fine job with sound - the balance between the singers and the orchestra is very good. Only "Let's Have Lunch" muddled, which may have been more a result of the staging than the sound design. The one design element that was lacking - and again this may have more to do with the staging than anything else - is Paul Tate dePoo III's scenic design. Appropriately spare given the inherent limitations of the series, my qualms have nothing to do with any lack of sumptuous details. Rather, it is the set up itself, which has a far upstage playing space rendered largely un-viewable by at least one-third of the audience at any given moment, depending on where exactly the action is. Why  can't it be seen? There are floor-to-ceiling staircases flanking the center stage orchestra that bend in at a severe angle downstage. They also leave only a small downstage space for the fair-sized cast to do Emily Maltby's athletic choreography amidst a variety of set pieces.

Much has been said about director Sammi Cannold's feminist take on the show, including a shift in the role of Joe as narrator to a shared narrator between Joe and Betty. As a man, maybe I missed it, but the only unusual thing Betty did was write everything she learned (from a man, mind you) in a journal. Turns out it was much ado about nothing, with a pretty much by-the-original-book show. Perhaps Cannold's time would have been better spent working out staging that the whole audience could see. Still, there are some clever moments. For example, Norma's return to Paramount Studios is staged here without a car, and she has provided a decent substitution by having Norma, Max and Joe arrive on foot at the gate.

Even with these shortcomings, Sunset Boulevard is a must-see ticket. The cast, the score and the orchestra make this a stellar event. If you have the chance to get down to the nation's capital between now and Wednesday, I'd highly recommend grabbing a ticket. It is absolutely fabulous!

📸: J. Kyler, M. Klein & J. Daniel

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