Norma Desmond, Girlboss: Sammi Cannold’s SUNSET BOULEVARD — Review

Washington D.C.

Derek Klena and Stephanie J Block | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Juan A. Ramirez
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February 7, 2023 2:45 PM

In 1950, Billy Wilder shot a poison-tipped arrow into the heart of Hollywood with Sunset Boulevard, a bleak noir comedy about Norma Desmond, the fictional former queen of silent film, now encased in the amber of her dilapidated mansion, and her desperate attempts to make her return (never a comeback) with the help of young, broke screenwriter Joe Gillis, who she gradually seduces and keeps. The writer-director crafted a tight screenplay that’s deeply poignant, enduringly funny, and relentlessly grim about the deluding effects of success, and the public’s willingness to discard once it fades. 

In 1993, Andrew Lloyd-Webber scored Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s musical adaptation of the material, swelling Sunset’s elements of gothic horror—its cavernous abode and ghosts of years past—into full, romantic Grand Guignol. This take on Wilder’s black comedy is essentially a gender-swapped Phantom of the Opera, where another older, cursed-to-the-fringes artist tries to find salvation through a younger vessel. It missed the sardonic point of the original, but gave us standout hits for belting divas and lovers of excess.

In 2023, director Sammi Cannold, best known for brushing Eva Peron’s terrible politics under a girlboss rug in her 2019 New York City Center staging of Evita, has strayed even further from the film’s flickering light in hopes of once again applying modern sociology onto a woman scorned. The results of her Sunset Boulevard, which opened last week at Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center and closes tomorrow, are close to disastrous, barely saved by Stephanie J. Block’s powerhouse vocals and presence as Norma, and the Center’s sumptuous Opera House Orchestra.

Stephanie J. Block and company | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

To think Norma Desmond is a victim of a patriarchal, ageist system ready to toss aside a woman of 50 is to be on the right track, but to believe it to be the cornerstone of  the story is to negate that Norma Desmond is, first and foremost, a victim of circumstance, and of her own ego. The tragic strength of the story is that it could happen to anyone; that one’s downfall is right around the corner. Billy Wilder might have written a human character, but the musical’s creators have not. For the (psychologically lesser) musical to make sense, she must play the part of the monster—an old crone, what they used to call a “psycho biddy”—and the show works because it marries Wilder’s sober observations to the sentimental lyrics, based on his all boys’ school understanding of women, which alchemically both creates and understands its monster. Whether there is misogyny inherent to the setup is another conversation, but this is the archetype written into his show, and to mess with that is to derail an already shakily assembled musical.

It still allows for campy fun though and, with the right lead under the right direction, penetrating instances of genuine pathos. The great paradox of Norma’s wild emotional turns is that, while her grander moments, like the hope to make a comeback playing a teenage sexpot, are ludicrously out of touch, her forthright displays of emotion—the declarations of love and flirtations with suicide—bring her down to earth. One may not relate to forcing the butler to screen our old classics in the main hall every night, but can empathize with the idea of falling scarily in love with the idea that our old home and glory will be there waiting for us, of letting our obsessions get the best of us.

This Norma is self-sufficient, sane, and (once) successful because Cannold operates on the belief that a woman desiring or needing anything, let alone a man, is problematic. But Hollywood, here at least, must operate as a site of exploitation, of horniness, ambition, and desire. The closest Cannold’s sexless, Human Resources-approved presentation of the material comes to showing the central physical attraction absolutely necessary to understanding why either of the leads would stick around each other is having Norma timidly tap Joe’s knee in a moment of excitement. So when the faded star blurts out her feelings for Joe (Derek Klena), or threatens to harm herself because of them, she seems, not tragically delusional, but crazy. Her dreams make up the show’s emotional backbone, and excising the more extreme behaviors means many of her memorably self-aggrandizing lines read as simply kooky (a terrible thing for a Norma Desmond to be), and her flurries of emotion now come from nowhere. In flattening the relationship’s unsavory kinks and wiping out any sense of possible exploitation, Cannold saps a source material often (positively) described as a “venomous love letter to Hollywood” of any toxicity, and the show suffers terribly from a lack of excitement.

The Company | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Instead—and because Cannold is incapable of leaving subtext merely felt, especially if it presents low-hanging fruit with which she can advance her pseudo-feminist revision—there are embarrassing choices that “complicate” the backstory, like having a younger Norma stand-in pantomime stepping off a film set and onto a measuring scale, as Block sings of her heyday’s glory. Get it? She’s not crazy, or deluded, just a victim. She won’t cry at her pet chimp’s burial, or slap people around when she’s mad; this Norma, as boss, as lover, and as film star, respects work-life balance.

That’s all conceptual. In terms of proficiency, Cannold’s work also lacks demonstrable skill. She often leaves her actors onstage too long, letting their lines wither on the vine or, worse, robbing Block of her character’s delicious exits and entrances. But when Block, a veteran actress and singer with enormous presence, steps under a spotlight and belts the pathos of Webber’s grandest, lushest score, it’s as if one is beckoned to applaud from a higher power. Aside from Block’s miraculous performance, it seems the entirety of Cannold’s work on the material was “humanizing” Desmond, believing the rest to fall into place.

Derek Klena and Auli'i Cravalho | Photo: Jeremy Daniel

It doesn’t. Klena is serviceable as the smug, young lead, though sometimes seems too preoccupied affecting a big-boy voice to add any character to his singing. Auli’i Cravalho might have lent Moana a requisite sweetness, but is far too innocent as his love interest Betty Schaefer, and falters in her mix. Joe and Betty are tough enough roles to play, though, being as woodenly as they are, so it was surprising to find baritone Nathan Gunn’s vocal performance as Norma’s butler Max so underwhelming, sung in short, powerless clips. 

His main number, “The Greatest Star of All,” is the core of the show: a mournful ode that encapsulates Sunset's essence of fatal worship—of the folly of both the Hollywood myth machine and its devoted, delude acolytes—while still recognizing the larger-than-life beauty it creates. Cannold drains that grandeur in this joyless take on one of Hollywood’s—and therefore, America’s—horniest and saddest founding myths. For that song, and the musical, to work, one has to believe in the magic and terror caused when confronted with flickering glory; the captivating allure of being mere people, sitting out there, in the dark.

Sunset Boulevard is in performance through February 8, 2023 at the Kennedy Center on F Street NW in Washington, D.C. For tickets and more information, visit here.

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Juan A. Ramirez

Juan A. Ramirez writes arts and culture reviews, features, and interviews for publications in New York and Boston, and will continue to do so until every last person is annoyed. Thanks to his MA in Film and Media Studies from Columbia University, he has suddenly found himself the expert on Queer Melodrama in Venezuelan Cinema, and is figuring out ways to apply that.

Washington D.C.
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