Fort Worth — There’s a particular subset of musicals whose primary function—all other merits aside—are to act as diva showcases, gilded frames for various grand dames of the Great White Way to display themselves to their best advantage. For other examples, look to Gypsy, Evita, Hello, Dolly!—the list goes on. But it’s hard to find a better or more comfortable diva habitat than Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Sunset Boulevard; with its mix of glamor, high melodrama, and real pathos, its faded star, Norma Desmond, has been portrayed by such luminaries as Patti Lupone, Glenn Close, and Texas sweetheart Betty Buckley. Tarrant Actors Regional Theatre (TART) has put up a production of Sunset Boulevard with limited resources, but with some real heart, and, most importantly of all, with a leading lady who fills the role’s diva shoes (or turbans) with panache.
Based on the Academy Award-winning movie and with music by Weber and book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, Sunset Boulevard tells the tale of down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis, who while on the run from his creditors, stumbles into the crumbling Hollywood mansion of former silent movie queen Norma Desmond. It seems like fate—Joe needs money and somewhere to lay low, and Norma needs someone to help her finish the doomed film script she’s convinced will be her ticket back to stardom. Baffled but seduced by Norma’s faded glamor, Joe becomes increasingly trapped by her world. His only respite is adapting a previous short story into a film treatment with script editor Betty Schaefer, and their growing feelings for one another brings his relationship with Norma to an explosive conclusion.
Whatever else you can say about it, TART’s production of Sunset Boulevard, directed by TART president and artistic director Allen Walker, clearly recognized that any rendition of the musical lives or dies based on its Norma, and Caroline Rivera, in her TART debut, gives a truly memorable performance. Having portrayed Desmond previously at the Great Lewisville Community Theater in 2012, Rivera brings that previous experience of the character to bear in this production, conveying real depth of feeling. Although younger than one would normally expect a Norma to be, with the aid of costuming and skillful aging of her voice, Rivera’s performance creates the illusion of age and faded beauty, though lacking the slightly grotesque aspect often embodied by the character. Her rendition of the show-stopping “As If We Never Said Goodbye” in the second act is lovely and controlled, though one wishes the rest of the cast had cleared the decks for it rather than crowding close around her—after all, a diva needs her stage.
As Joe, visiting cast member Anthony Mankins brings a certain world-weary glibness to the part. Lauren Morgan (the co-artistic director of Fort Worth mainstay Stolen Shakespeare Guild) offers a gentle screwball-comedy energy as Joe’s love interest Betty Schaefer, a junior script editor at Paramount who believes in Joe’s talent as a writer even if he’s lost faith in it himself. Robert Bradford Smith gives an unexpectedly poignant turn as Norma’s devoted butler Max, whose relationship with Norma is more complex than it may seem at first glance. And Nolan Shaver makes the most of a small role as Joe’s friend and Betty’s fiancé Artie, a small fish in the Hollywood pond who is troubled by the sparks between Betty and Joe.
The set design by Sydnee Mowery makes good use of its small space at the Sanders Theatre; two staircases flank the lower part of the stage, one curved to offer maximum opportunities for dramatic entrances, and the other doubling as Joe’s room over the garage at Norma’s home and a workspace for Joe and Betty, with a sort of low proscenium stage between the two. A catwalk stretches above the stage and between the two staircases, and a screen at the upper rear of the stage is used to good effect in projecting black-and-white images of old Hollywood mixed with footage shot specifically for this production (projections credited to Chase York). A sequence showing Norma’s re-entry to the Paramount lot, filmed in Dallas’ art deco Fair Park grounds, impresses with its production values.
The decision by director/conductor Walker and music director Clint Gilbert to use pre-recorded musical tracks, while understandable given the size of the theater, detracts somewhat from the show’s score, especially given the synthesizer-heavy nature of the recordings, and some cast members struggled to overcome its volume. Jennie Jermaine’s choreography is tight and energetic, though at times too expansive for this particular stage; big ensemble numbers sometimes feel hemmed in. And special mention must go to Shayla Moose’s costuming; Norma’s gold lamé turbans and draping tunics are perfect in conveying the character’s out-of-date but still alluring fashion sense, and her final costume is an appropriately over-the-top dramatic masterpiece.
All-in-all, TART’s production of this dark, cynical tale of rotted stardom and Hollywood monsters is elevated by an exceptional performance by its leading lady, in a diva-worthy turn. Come for the music; stay for the turbans.