Theater Review: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard”

Sometimes, whether it is an opera performance, a concert, a ballet or a musical, something happens that makes the total experience far exceed the sum of its parts. When this happens it is extremely magical, and this happened for me during one of the first performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster musical Sunset Boulevard at the Gateway Playhouse in Bellport.

Let me hasten to say that the individual parts themselves are formidable. Loni Ackerman is used to playing big roles, having starred as Eva Perón on Broadway, and here she captivates and enthralls the audience with her measured and nuanced performance as Norma Desmond, a faded superstar of the long-gone silent movie age who reclusively and forlornly waits for a call from the great DeMille to tell her to return to her “adoring fans.” Norma meets penurious screenwriter Joe Gillis and sees in him her last chance for making her delusions about scripting a major film called Salome come true.

Joe is played by Robert J. Townsend and he could easily have been swamped by the fiery, tempestuous bravura of Loni Ackerman but his physical presence and great acting—coupled with a voice that makes you want to listen to him perform solo for an evening—makes this a duo to savor. One of the key moments of the show is when Norma and Joe first meet and she sings about what a silent movie star could do to her audience “With One Look.” From that moment on you could feel the electricity in the theater and the show just got better and better.

Again, this show is a total triumph of casting. Joel Robertson as Max, Norma’s one-time film director, devoted ex-husband and now butler/aide/chauffeur, exudes a protective menace and has a great baritone voice. Gail Bennett as Betty Schaefer, who falls in love with Joe while collaborating with him on a film script, shares several poignant numbers with him, especially in “This Time Next Year.” All the members of the cast have great vitality and energy and the choreography by Larry Raben, who also directs the show, adds so much to the whole production.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music for the show ranges from big production numbers, such as the grooming of Joe in “The Lady’s Paying” and the toe tapping “New Year Tango,” to romantic ballads like “Too Much in Love to Care.” Don Black’s and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics are pointed and well worth listening to. With most of the dialogue sung as a recitative rather than spoken in prose sentences, there is an additional demand on the actors. Incidentally, what a wonderful pleasure to be able to hear and understand every word the whole cast sang, something not often experienced with many recent Broadway shows!

The orchestra, directed by Jeffrey Buchsbaum, had great rhythm and adjusted extremely well to the various styles, and play a major part in the success of the production. The sets designed by Todd Ivans are elaborate and the Trevor Bowen-designed costumes (especially those worn by Norma) were evocative of the age and the contrast between the workaday world of Hollywood and that of the stars.

Robert J. Ackerman’s role as Joe has him on stage for the majority of the show, rendering it an extremely demanding one that he plays to perfection. But the evening is really a triumph for Loni Ackerman. Throughout the show she brings Norma, a sad, semi-delusional character, to life. You can’t help but be moved by this portrayal of a star whose brilliance has faded, an individual whom time has treated badly. The whole evening was magical and the show deserves to sell out for the entirety of the run, which ends on August 20.

In my nearly twenty years of watching Gateway productions and many more years enjoying London and Broadway shows, this Gateway evening will always remain as one of the high points of all of those evenings, when I enjoyed that special thrill that can only come from being part of a live performance by great artists when everything clicks and synergy becomes reality.

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