Curtain Rises: Civic Theatre of Allentown ready for its close-up in Lehigh Valley debut of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ musical
The Lehigh Valley is ready for its close-up of “Sunset Boulevard” when the musical makes is Lehigh Valley premiere, Oct. 11-27, Civic Theatre of Allentown.
Sunset Boulevard stretches 21 miles from Figueroa Avenue in downtown Los Angeles to the Pacific Palisades.
It makes a beeline through Hollywood, Echo Park, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood, West Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Holmby Hills, Bel-Air and Brentwood before descending with often wicked curves to Pacific Palisades and dead-ends at the Pacific Coast Highway.
“Sunset Boulevard,” the classic 1950 film directed by Billy Wilder, dead-ends at the career of Norma Desmond. The faded Hollywood silent movie star is hell-bent on a comeback. She lives in a huge dark mansion along Sunset Boulevard. She befriends struggling screenwriter Joe Gilles. He harbors dreams of his own.
Portions of Sunset Boulevard are also storied in the TV detective show, “77 Sunset Strip” (1958-1964), starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Roger Smith and Edd “Kookie” Byrnes; Jan and Dean’s hit surf-rock song, “Dead Man’s Curve” (1964), where Jan Berry was ironically crippled in a 1966 car crash, and The Buffalo Springfield folk-rock song, “For What It’s Worth” (1967), about a 1966 riot at Pandora’s Box, a Sunset Strip club.
“Sunset Boulevard,” a film noir that starred Gloria Swanson (Norma Desmond) and William Holden (Joe Gilles), received three Oscars (Screenplay, Art Direction, Score).
Several catch-phrases from the movie entered the American pop culture lexicon, including: “Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” (Norma Desmond), and “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” (Norma Desmond).
“Sunset Boulevard,” the musical based on the Academy Award-winning movie, opened in London in 1993, with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The musical opened on Broadway in 1995, receiving seven Tony Awards, including Musical, Original Score, Book of Musical, Leading Actress (Glenn Close), Featured Actor (George Hearn), Scenic Design and Lighting Design.
William Sanders, Civic Theatre of Allentown Artistic Director, who directs and choreographs “Sunset Boulevard” at Civic, has wanted to direct the musical for some time.
“We [Civic] tried twice. And it took a few months for them [the musical’s representatives] to answer. Basically, they said, ‘You’ll find out when you find out,” says Sanders. Civic received the rights to “Sunset Boulevard” the musical in March.
Civic Theatre veteran performer Pat Birnbaum returns to the Lehigh Valley for the role of Norma Desmond. Will Morris joins the cast as Joe Gillis.
Sanders says he pre-cast Birnbaum, who lives near Ashville, N.C. She was in Civic productions of “Follies” and “Grey Gardens” and was back for Civic’s “Tonys and Tapas” summer 2019 benefit.
“She was in the first show I directed at Civic in 1989,” Sanders recalls.
“She was Adelaide in ‘Guys and Dolls.’ So, she is making a return,” Sanders quips about Birnbaum.
Sanders counts the musical and movie as one of his favorites:
“I, of course love the camp value of the movie. I saw it for the first time at the Regency in New York in 1979.
“I was particularly struck in the musical by the moment when she returns to the studio because I think it’s one of the most perfect translations from movie to musical that I’ve seen. It translates the excitement. I think if you were doing a class in the musicalization of a movie to a musical, it’s a textbook example.”
Sanders also sees an underlying topical theme in the movie’s and musical’s storyline:
“It’s very much about how women’s contributions are not valued.
“And I respond to the way people of a certain age are treated, not only by Hollywood, but in general. I think that in Hollywood, it’s under a microscope, but I don’t think it’s very different for the general public.
“It speaks to our obsession with youth, how everyone now is getting Botox and filler and facelifts, and trying to look younger. This [‘Sunset Boulevard’ movie screenplay] was written in 1948. And if anything, it’s gotten worse.
‘You wonder where it ends. ‘Death Becomes Her’? I’m waiting for that to become a musical,” Sanders chuckles.
Sanders says he envisioned the musical production of “Sunset Boulevard” in a sound stage setting, even before it was staged that way for the 2017 Broadway revival.
“When I wanted to do it initially, I wanted to do it on a sound stage because I did that in ‘Mack and Mable.’ And it was great to see that they did that in the latest revival.
“It all takes place on the sound stage, and there are projections and films,” Sanders says of the Civic production, which includes Deena Linn, co-choreographer, and JoAnn Wilchek Basist, assistant director.
Set designer is Joshua DeRuosi. Costume and lighting designer is Will Morris. Technical director is Samuel Roff. A 14-piece professional orchestra is conducted by music director Nick Conti.
“It’s almost completely sung-through, but it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber, so that should tell you something,” observes Sanders. “There are clearly musical numbers and scenes. The way he kept it cinematic was by underscoring everything. The orchestra’s on stage.”
Says Sanders, ”I saw the “Sunset Boulevard” musical in London with Betty Buckley as Norma Desmond in the original West End production, right after Patti LuPone left. When I saw it, I thought that it was something that we [Civic Theatre] could never attempt because the sets were so absurd. It was like a $10-million production.”
The “Sunset Boulevard” musical national tour began in 1996 and concluded in early 1997 after only a few performances attributed to the expense of transporting the set.
“The thing that I like about putting it on the sound stage is that it focuses on the four people rather than the set,” says Sanders.
The role of Max, Norma Desmond’s chauffeur and servant, is played by Todd Rizzuto. The part of the young writer Betty Schaefer is played by Gianna Neal, with Doug Ace portraying her fiancé and Joe’s friend Artie. Auteur film director Cecil B. DeMille is played by Frank Riscitti.
The cast includes Nina Ace, Gene Banko, Tracy Ceschin, Robert Coll, Susan Glover, Nate Kuhns, Deena Linn, Jesenia Matthews, Sean McFarland, Kathleen Oswalt, Anthony Rizzuto, Allie Sacher, Andrew Schaffer, John Sechler and Kristen Stachina. Stage manager is Gabby Cadden-James.
Ultimately, Sanders says, “Sunset Boulevard” is about the power of story:
“It’s a beautiful romance. People who are taken with the movie will be really taken by the musicalization. And people who aren’t, will be really enthralled with the musical-mystery. And who doesn’t like Andrew Lloyd Webber? And most people haven’t seen it because it hasn’t toured.”
Tickets: Civic Theater of Allentown box office, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday-Friday, 19th Street Theatre, 527 N. 19th St., Allentown; civictheatre.com; 610-432-8943