by Hedy Weiss
When: Through March 24
Where: Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace
Info: (630) 530-0111; www.drurylaneoakbrook.com
Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission
It's not often that audiences for musicals call out "bravos" the way those in opera houses regularly do. But Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard" makes operatic demands on several of its singers. And at the opening night performance of the show at the Drury Lane Oakbrook Theatre -- after Christine Sherrill finished casting her spell, both emotionally and vocally, with the make-or-break first act aria, "With One Look" -- the audience erupted the way they might at Lyric Opera.
The statuesque Sherrill -- whose voice has a huge range of tones and colors -- is thrilling in this song. And she remains so throughout the rest of this crazy, somewhat uneven noir vision of Hollywood. Putting her distinctive mark of ownership on the role, the actress sustains the bizarre mix of glamor and grotesquerie essential to the story based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, and penned for the stage by Don Black and Christopher Hampton.
Sherrill also easily suggests why Norma Desmond -- who years earlier was the hugely bankable young star of countless silent films, and is now an aging, forgotten, delusional shut-away still wealthy enough to sustain a grand palazzo in the city of broken dreams -- can still wield her magic as she dreams of a comeback.
You can see Norma's enduring will at work in the way she lures and manipulates her prey -- the cynical, cash-strapped young reporter-turned-screenplay writer, Joe Gillis (Will Ray, who uses his powerhouse voice to give a scorching rendition of the show's title song, and brings just the right streak of rage, bitter resentment and self-disgust to his portrayal).
You also can sense sense the fierce love Norma continues to inspire in Max von Mayerling (Don Richard, who brings a real humanity to the role, rather than making it the usual Addams Family-like stereotype). This once formidable director, now serves as Norma's unflappable butler and protector, is awed by her unwillingness to surrender, even if she IS wholly divorced from reality.
"Sunset Boulevard" is a huge show that moves between the bizarre goings on inside Norma's mansion, and the more recognizable reality of a Hollywood studio, a sound stage and even Schwab's Drugstore, a favorite hangout for young talent. Among that talent is Betty Schaefer (the fervent, clarion-voiced Dara Cameron), a young script editor who encourages Joe to keep up the good fight, and falls for him as they collaborate on a script, even if Joe is a marked man in many ways.
The show itself is hardly seamless, even if it is largely sung-through. And director William Osetek hasn't solved the problems that have plagued this musical from the start, particularlythe way the air tends to go out of the show whenever the larger-than-life Desmond scenes switch to "the real world." (His staging of the final staircase scene isn't quite as dramatic as it might have been either.)
Yet there are some well-done cameos -- Rod Thomas as a studio boss and David Kortemeier as a studio technician who remembers Desmond from the old days. There is excellent music direction by way of Roberta Duchak, an impossibly sensual tango sequence choreographed by Tammy Mader, cleverly done special effects by projections magician Mike Tutaj, grandly stylish costumes for Sherrill (by designer Theresa Ham), a muscular set by Scott Davis that captures dual architectural styles, and a fine orchestra led by Ben Johnson.
And there is Sherrill, who by all rights should be a Broadway star. Just consider yourself lucky that you can see her here. She is more than ready for her close-up.