By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When the notices first went out proclaiming an upcoming production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard at Slidell’s Cutting Edge Theater, there might well have been some doubt as to whether the upstart company could properly carry it off.
Based on the classic Oscar-winning Billy Wilder film, the Tony Award-winning musical requires fairly high production values and a large ensemble cast. In addition to a number of scenes set in the Hollywood studios of Paramount and at iconic spots like Schwab’s Drug Store, there is, of course, the question of that prominent staircase descending from the second floor of Norma Desmond’s palatial mansion. There’s also the Italian luxury car in which she is chauffeured, an Isola-Franchini 8A for you trivia fans, considered as one of the most opulent of the era.
How could the very small stage at the theater possibly hold the complement of the cast, especially with the incorporated set design featuring both the staircase and car?
As to the staircase, director Suzanne Stymiest and theater owner Brian Fontenot decided to build two modest sets of stairs at either end of the rear of the stage. Theatre does involve using one’s imagination, after all, and that compromise as well as to depict the car via projections did satisfy the necessary means with which to move the plot along and be true to the musical’s book.
The sumptuous and dramatic music by Lloyd Webber is complemented by lyrics from Don Black and Christopher Hampton, both of whom have enjoyed success in writing for film scores and soundtracks as well as for other stage musicals and plays.
But the music, supervised by musical director Aaron Turnipseed, required a daunting challenge for the four primary cast members. Each had to match their distinct characters to their songs and the placement of their voices was critical. They rehearsed for the better part of three months and the hard work showed.
The show also reflects diversity in the casting of the distaff roles of fading silent screen legend Norma Desmond and scrappy fledgling writer Betty Schaefer.
Thais Kitchens tackles the crucial role of fading screen legend Norma Desmond, whose leitmotif is fully explored in “With One Look.” Kitchens carries herself with the authentic aura of a movie star and oozes sophistication and charm. Yet, even though she holds tightly onto the illusion of still being adored by millions of fans, she is as fragile as an egg.
Kitchens holds true to her character during her major show-stopping songs, the aforementioned “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” She also establishes the force of her character with the early song “Surrender,” which is used as a final coda. In “The Perfect Year” that sets up the ending for Act One, she enjoys a duet with her love interest Joe Gillis, played by Matthew Welch.
Welch plays the narrator of the work, the down-on-his-luck scriptwriter, with enthusiasm and assertiveness. The jaded Gillis is very much the glue that keeps all of the action moving along and he negotiates his vocals cleanly and with authority. Trying to avoid two goons attempting to repossess his car, he eludes them in a high speed chase by turning into the driveway of the former silent screen star He clashes immediately with Desmond’s overly protective butler Max von Mayerling (Ronald Brister), whose portrayal is also quite special. Max’s solo of “The Greatest Star of All” tells much of her story and the reason behind his unfailing dedication to her.
Jovan “Jojo” Mathieu’s portrayal of Schaefer is a youthful counterpart to Desmond’s suffocating love of an older woman. The would-be fellow scriptwriter, is engaged to marry Gillis’ friend Artie, but their work together on one of Gillis’ old scripts turns out to be the catalyst for a budding romance with disastrous consequences. In her love duet with Welch –”Too Much in Love To Care” – she employs several musical flights of fancy, making sure that we know her voice is as powerful as it is agile. While Betty Schaefer is a featured role, Mathieu’s work on stage indicates clearly she is capable of leading lady roles.
Kaitlyn Walker, last seen at Cutting Edge as Flowers Tammy in Sweet Potato Queens, returns as the choreographer for the show’s dance sequences as well as a member of the ensemble. To her credit, the 20 ensemble members are put through their paces, especially a difficult task when one considers the size of the Cutting Edge performance space.
While there are some obvious compromises in mounting this work, the entire creative staff including lighting design by Richard Fuentes, sound design by Andrew Bywater and Anna Kate Zimmerle and costumes by Martha Welsh are all quite good.
The good news is there are no competing productions on the boards at this time on the South shore, which makes the drive across the Twin Spans well worth it. The cost of each ticket is $27.50, a very reasonable charge for the more than two-hour work. Congratulations to Cutting Edge Theater on bringing this classic work to the stage and silencing any Doubting Thomases out there who might have questioned their collective ability to pull this off.
Sunset Boulevard (2 hours and 10 minutes ) continues its run at Cutting Edge Theater, 767 Robért Blvd. in Slidell with four shows on Fridays and Saturday nights at 8 p.m. Tickets available through Eventbrite.com. For information, call 985-649-3727.