Never the subtlest of mega-musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" at least comes with a resident cynic. That would be Joe Gillis, the struggling writer from Dayton, Ohio, who gets trapped in the web of Norma Desmond, a faded Hollywood star who fails, like so many of us, to deal with the fickleness of admirers and the ravages of time.
At the top of Act 2, this self-loathing character unleashes the title number: "Dreams are not enough to win a war," he sings. "Out here they're always keeping score. Beneath the tan the battle rages."
"Sunset Boulevard" actually has one of Lloyd-Webber's best scores ("New Ways to Dream," "As If We Never Said Goodbye," "Too Much in Love to Care") and that title song is one of its highlights. But it has to have bite. Alas, that crucial quality is missing from Will Ray's deftly voiced but milquetoast performance at the Drury Lane Theatre and without that narrative drive for a show that's driven by a first-person narrative, William Osetek's production just cannot fully convey the necessary urgency.
Frankly, much of the casting feels a little off. Christine Sherrill is certainly a perfectly respectable Norma and eminently capable both of singing the score in such a way that its big dramatic moments land, and of conveying the gravitas of this outsized character. Sherrill, a big Chicago talent, gives us much to enjoy here and you will not struggle to hear her lyrics nor sense the self-entitlement of a grand diva of the old school. Still, those who know Sherrill's work, which has been getting better and better of late, will likely feel that she hasn't brought all of her gifts for subtlety and nuance to this particular moving-picture show. But she's a little young for this role, which may well account for that sense that she can't fully relax therein. Indeed, the show's intended love-triangle of young Betty Schaeffer (Dara Cameron), older Norma and Joe caught in the middle doesn't really work, nor does the frisson one is supposed to get when an older woman beds a younger man. Ray, Cameron and Sherrill all play together not unlike peers. And, alas, there is no discernible sexual tension between Betty and Joe, which disarms another of the show's generally potent weapons.
Designer Scott Davis makes an honorable attempt here to get away from the famous original design of Norma's mansion (which, back in the excessive era of this show, once filled Chicago's Civic Opera House, where it looked gorgeous). Instead, he comes up with a series of platforms, scaffolding, dark corners and projections (by Mike Tutaj), only pulling out the full-blown spectacle for Norma's famous final close-up.
It's a look that certainly modernizes the piece, which has the additional asset of a ensemble full of big talents and powerful voices, and makes it feel a little cooler. In practice, though, both the design and the staging tend to trap too many of the intimate scenes, especially those with Joe and Betty, either on a balcony or half-way up a staircase, further adding to this sense of a "Sunset Boulevard" that captures some of the passion of the story, and much of its enjoyable theatricality, but not its clutch of totally desperate Hollywood characters on dates with their own fates.
When: Through March 24
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $35-$46 at 630-530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye