I have to confess to feeling nervous about reviewing an amateur production of Sunset Boulevard by a company I haven’t seen before. This sophisticated musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton (based on the Billy Wilder) could go down the cringey bad production pan or could surprise and delight me. I am thrilled to say it is the latter.
The sweeping and lush orchestrations under musical director James Bowden are brilliantly played and add enormously to create the right atmospheres to this amateur show and carry the awkward and menacing drama of writer Joe Gillis (Phil Deakin) and former Hollywood silent pictures star Norma Desmond (Alex Tavener) – twenty plus years his senior – to its dangerously deluded and mad-eyed end. Both Deakin and Tavener are superb in their very professional performances and from Deakin’s first sung prologue and Tavener’s grand melancholic entrance in scene four (Surrender/With One Look/Salome) we are entranced and realise we are in very good theatrical hands as audience members.
Sunset Boulevard ain’t no casual simple sing song stroll down to the mad Norma Desmond mansion at 10086. And anyways, who walks in L.A? No sir. This show is a vocally challenging piece for principals and ensemble alike with its clever sung through juxtaposed lines informing and swopping to music to create a sense of the busy-busy false hopes world of Hollywood and its promises of fame and work broken and promises of fame and work allowed – at a price – and longevity never a given. Just ask Norma who refuses to believe her star is fading by the minute protected from reality by her loyal butler Max.
Big Qudos to the talented Erewash Musical Society amateur chorus who make the traffic of their story telling through song flow well – for the most part. And they do it with a great deal of personality and humour.
There are a couple more well very well-performed roles here tonight that also lift the show out of the norm. Those are butler Max Von Myerling (John Fletcher), screen writer and love interest Betty Schaefer (Emma Barnes-Marriott) and Cecil B. De Mille (non-singing role by Keith Butcher). When a show is peopled by such strong support talents you know you are dealing with quality work. Bravo to all.
Although a darkly romantic show – with clear edges of weirdness cutting through its doomed younger man/batty older woman – relationships core – there are many elements of humour within. These are best exemplified in Don Black’s sardonic book and through the male and female separately dominated scenes in ‘The Lady’s Paying’ (tailors fitting up Joe Gillis with multiple expensive suits) and the act two scene two song ‘A Little Suffering’ starring a prone Norma Desmond and her beauticians, masseurs, astrologist, analyst and doctor paying her body, spirit and mind great attention and very likely great financial extortion.
To sum up, Erewash Musical Society have a big hit on their stage with Sunset Boulevard at the Duchess Theatre this week. Do book quickly or you may regret it. A polite reminder that it is not a singalong musical even though you may know the words to Auld Lang Syne and, after your pre-show over-indulgence at the bar, you and your mates feel compelled to add your dulcet (but a bit out-of-tune wobbly) tones to the singing company on stage – just don’t. Leave it all to the skilled performers on stage. They are excellent. They give us ‘New Ways To Dream’ ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ and the cast indeed are performing for you because they are ‘The Greatest Star/s Of All’ on stage tonight. Get booking. Pronto!