PITTSBURGH - Possession and usury flirted wildly with tempestuous fragility as the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera premiered a superbly bewitching production of "Sunset Boulevard," Andrew Lloyd Webber's unforgettable musical adaptation of Billy Wilder's significant screenplay of the same title. The CLO's production, though full of arresting atmospheric magnificence, was most stirring within the heart.
Imposing financiers abound in Los Angeles' Paramount Studios in search of an up-and-coming screenwriter, Joe Gillis, who at the moment is in financial straits, dodging the impending loss of his car to the studio's gangster bankers while preparing to entice the studio to use one of his scripts as the basis for a new film. In an attempt to elude his predatory followers in a car chase, Joe finds shelter in the driveway of an opulent Hollywood palazzo located at 10086 Sunset Blvd., where, unknown to Joe, resides an aging formerly admired silent film legend, Norma Desmond, who now daily lives maniacally encompassed within the dream of her decades- past desirableness to movie audiences and producers, develops her triumphant return to the screen.
When Norma learns Joe is an author of screenplays, she quickly orders him to edit her self-written script, "Salome," which she plans to use as her grand and sensual re-entrance to the silver screen. Six months, within 1949 and 1950, living in enormously luxurious style, with Norma lavishing gifts upon him, find Joe a materially comfortable, yet imprisoned, man. Seeking liberty from Norma's obsessive behavior leads Joe into a harried struggle - his material security as a man owned by a neurotically spellbound woman versus his personal freedom, which threatens its own irksome consequences.
Masterfully embodying Norma Desmond's severe emotional peril, Liz Callaway delivered a multifaceted performance that sumptuously battered the heart. Callaway's Norma, when in situations that she could fully command with little or no interference, exuded an imperious grace through her gliding gait, erect posture and elegantly lifted hands; while in Norma's uncontrollably suicidal nature, Callaway's contrastingly meek voice and enclosed, shriveled carriage depicted the most piteous of images. When united with Matthew Scott as Joe Gillis, Callaway's passion would ignite as Norma desperately attempts to keep him bound to her; whereas when Joe is smothered by her possessiveness and tries to evade her, she would collapse with devastating vulnerability.
Additionally, Callaway's marvelously versatile singing ability extenuated the depth of her portrayal. Most remarkable among her catalog of sensitively perfected musical numbers was her arousing, elated rendition of one of Norma's most provocative ballads, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," in which she relates her ecstatic joy of once more being on the grounds of a Hollywood soundstage after many decades of separation.
Serving as narrator and the dominant personification of normalcy of within this tale, Matthew Scott's urbane Joe Gillis emanated an unwaveringly world-weary, yet refreshingly, grounded air as he observed the ruthless and artificial way of life within Paramount Studios and especially as the eccentricities of Norma Desmond's lifestyle unfolded before him, making his presence a welcome stronghold as he guided the audience through his extraordinary experience. Also, making Scott's interpretation extremely fascinating were his moments of tantalizingly authentic pity for Norma. Completing his tremendous interpretation was the strong and scintillating vocal prowess he unleashed throughout the musical, especially during his commanding rendition of the sleazy title number.
Reservedly adorning the production with remarkable potency, Walter Charles as Norma's curiously and steadfastly dedicated butler, Max von Mayerling, provided moments of confined intensity as he surveyed with heartrending dismay Norma's heated overtures to Joe and with utmost disgust and mortification witnessed Joe's mistreatment of Norma.
The Pittsburgh CLO's production of "Sunset Boulevard" treated audiences to an alluringly heart-wrenching and exhilarating journey through one of the nation's most intriguing cities with its complex and startling plotline and Andrew Lloyd Webber's entrancing score. In fact, so riveting was this production's power that it seductively lured my mother and me back to the Benedum to witness a second tremendously gratifying performance.
(Sarah Reed is theater critic for Weekender.)