Theater Review: ‘Sunset Blvd.’ by Palo Alto Players

Pictures may have gotten smaller, but this story continues to be larger than life.

Sunset Blvd.
In Review

Sunset Blvd.

3.5 out of 5 stars
3.5 out of 5 stars - 'Sweet Stuff'
Directed by Matthew Mattei
Palo Alto Players
November 6th - 21st
Review by

Sunset Blvd.With a large cast, complex vocals and more set changes than you can shake the proverbial stick at, Sunset Blvd. is an ambitious undertaking. Given the strong audience response at the opening last night, the Palo Alto Players did more than adequate justice to this story. Taking on a play as well known as Sunset Boulevard is always a dangerous proposition. If anything, this production wins new fans for an old story. Pictures may have gotten smaller, but this story continues to be larger than life.

Part of this success lies in director Matthew Mattei’s stated goal of delivering the same product that he fell for when seeing the premiere of the show 17 years ago. Mattei’s production succeeds where others fail because his is a more compassionate interpretation, and less of a film noir one than others I’ve seen. That’s not to say that the noir aspects were ignored, especially in the second act, but it was refreshing that screenwriter Joe Gillis (Ashley Simms) wasn’t played as a complete sleazebag. This introduced a depth and complexity, and makes the end all the more tragic. By shepherding the character along with the plot, Mattei delivered an ending that continued to shock even as the film version approaches its 60th anniversary.

While the character of Gillis was allowed to develop throughout the first act, that of Norma Desmond (Annmarie Martin) was front and center in-your-face from the first time we see her pining over the dead chimp until the very last second of the spell-binding number. Here, a wee bit of modulation might be called for in those early numbers; Norma Desmond might be the greatest star of all, but her very strength works against her when she blasts it out at 110 percent unrelentingly. This sorted itself out after those first few numbers. By the end, she had the audience in the palm of her hand.

Some of the strongest numbers involved Arte (Danny Martin), Betty (Courtney Hatcher), Sheldrake (David Martin), and the balance of the ensemble. For example, the blocking of the salesmen in The Lady’s Paying was just so visually interesting, it provided a needed respite from the intense central drama.

My own real nit with this production was the poor integration of video into the drama. The campy intro header worked well, bringing a note of novelty while remaining consistent with the tone of the period, but the car chase footage seemed to be overreaching for an effect that just didn’t get pulled off. This was a minor flaw in an otherwise excellent effort.

Sunset Blvd. is playing through November 21st. Revisiting this classic production will be a welcome treat before the holidays have us in their grasp.

Sunset Blvd.
Palo Alto Players
Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Matthew Mattei

November 6th – 21st

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Cy Ashley Webb

Cy spent the ‘80’s as a bench scientist, the tech boom doing intellectual property law, and the first decade of the millennium, aspiring to be the world’s oldest grad student at Stanford where she is interested in political martyrdom. Presently, she enjoys writing for Stark Insider and the SF Examiner, hanging out at Palo Alto Children’s Theatre, and participating in various political activities. Democracy is not a spectator sport! Cy is a SFBATCC member.

  • Greg

    Sadly, this is a mess. Where should I begin?

    The sound design is so unbalanced that the chamber-sized orchestra drowns out the acoustically enhanced performers. Miscues in lighting, coupled with downright poor design choices, are simply too blatant to ignore. Recitative passages alternate with straight dialogue for no discernable reason to the point of distraction. And with the exception of a few songs, none are moving, let alone memorable.

    The two leads, who were most likely chosen for their exceptional vocal acumen, approach the material from two jarringly different styles. It’s hard to imagine a more astounding casting misstep!

    Annmarie Martin, despite possessing a wonderful voice of show-stopping potential, is wildly uneven in all facets of her performance. She appears lost, as demonstrated by jarring fits of intensity, all the while clumsily feigning either a Mid-Atlantic or West Coast dialect. One wonders if the character equally perplexed the director!

    Ashley Simms, blessed with an oral instrument of pleasant melodious range and warm timbre, is just too immature to play a role that demands such obvious gravitas. While no one expects him to fill the shoes of a William Holden, one cannot fathom why anyone would find him well suited for the part.

    On a more positive note, a strong supporting turn, both in singing and acting skill, is thankfully delivered by the sonorous baritone Russ Bohard. Unlike his fellow cast mates, he has a clear grasp of the world his laconic character inhabits and his place within it. Bravo! And honorable mention must be given to the artful set and costume design.

    While I wholeheartedly encourage continuing support of the good works typical of the Palo Alto Players, this is not a representative sample of that laudable tradition. Reluctantly, I must recommend that one consider an investment of time and dollars elsewhere.