Guess Who Missed Musical Theatre West’s Sunset. Should MTW Expand?

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Anyone who follows LA theater should realize by now that Musical Theatre West in Long Beach is the area’s biggest and most consistently professional producer (as opposed to presenter or importer) of musicals, turning out home-grown productions with more Equity contracts, more regularly than any other company in the county.

Likewise, anyone who follows LA theater should have been especially curious to see Musical Theatre West’s rendition of Sunset Boulevard.

Two decades ago,  this musical had received its American premiere in LA. Then it became the second and last LA-focused show (after only City of Angels) to win a Tony award for best musical. But it hadn’t been professionally produced in the LA area during the 21st century until Musical Theatre West opened it three weeks ago.

Valerie Perri in "Sunset Boulevard." Photo by Ken Jacques.
Valerie Perri in “Sunset Boulevard.” Photo by Ken Jacques.

I was tied up in covering summer classics during its opening weekend, and then I was out of town for a week. But I finally caught up with Sunset Boulevard on Saturday, during what was unfortunately the final weekend of the scheduled run.

Fortunately, nearly all of the Carpenter Center’s 1,074 seats were filled — no thanks to the LA Times. I had assumed that a Times review would appear while I was out of town. So I was astonished to learn that the Times didn’t cover the return of Sunset Boulevard to LA.

The Times hasn’t completely ignored Musical Theatre West’s 60th anniversary season, which concluded with Sunset Boulevard.  The first two productions in that season, 42nd Street and Oklahoma!, were elevated into the Times’ Critics’ Choices pantheon by free-lance critic David C. Nichols. The Times skipped the third production of the season, A Chorus Line — probably on the defensible grounds that it’s revived as often as, say, Chicago, and that its structure limits the number and variety of interpretations that a director might bring to it.

But something was amiss at the Times when Sunset Boulevard got the cold shoulder.

There is no evidence that the Times’ chief theater critic, Charles McNulty, has ever attended a Musical Theatre West production; he hasn’t reviewed a show there during his six-plus years on the job. However, as I’ve previously pointed out, it’s not unusual for McNulty to ignore important institutions within the LA theater landscape.

Still, McNulty used to review Reprise fairly regularly. That late, lamented organization, like Musical Theatre West, also specialized in revivals of musicals — but Reprise had smaller audiences, in its smaller venue. I wonder why McNulty doesn’t now pay more attention to Musical Theatre West.

Perhaps he has an aversion to traveling to Long Beach? As far as I can tell, he has reviewed only one production at Long Beach’s midsize International City Theatre, and he wrote that review in his first months on the job, more than six years ago.

Yet he regularly travels farther, to Costa Mesa and San Diego, not to mention New York. He wrote capsule reviews of eight London productions on July 21. And he traveled to another art form altogether when he reviewed eight films in Outfest Los Angeles on July 19. Sunset Boulevard opened on July 13.

Valerie Perri and David Burnham
Valerie Perri and David Burnham

In the print edition of the Times this morning, McNulty reviewed the now-closed three-performance Hollywood Bowl version of the ubiquitous Chicago, and the Times editors gave it an enormous spread that was roughly the equivalent of what Sunset Boulevard received when it received its American premiere in LA nearly two decades ago. Of course the Bowl, with its enormous capacity, draws huge audiences. Its summer musicals are packed with the names of TV and movie celebrities; those Hollywood names help keep the Hollywood Bowl filled. Many of those in the audiences have probably seen at least four or five renditions of Chicago over the past few decades — and without star names, they might not have bothered with one more.

One of the advantages of Musical Theatre West’s location in Long Beach is that the company certainly doesn’t feel nearly as much pressure to cast on the basis of Hollywood celebrity (and it probably wouldn’t be all that successful if it tried). Instead, it can concentrate on who’s right for the role, and its focus can be on theater names instead of mass-media phenoms.

And so in Sunset Boulevard, we saw Valerie Perri — who’s best known in these parts for playing many versions of Evita over the years — as Norma Desmond. David Burnham, playing Joe Gillis, is known for The Light in the Piazza. Norman Large, playing Max, has had an “extremely varied” career, as his bio notes, including five Ovation nominations, opera, Broadway, and yes, Star Trek guest roles and Pretty Woman.

Some might argue that a show about a woman who is proclaimed to be “the greatest star of all” needs a bona fide star playing that role. But it has been years since Norma could legitimately claim that title, and besides, non-stars can often play stars well. While Perri is not famous on the level of Glenn Close, she played Norma just as well as Close did in the US premiere, and she may well have sung the role even better. I’d have to go back and listen to Close’s recordings to verify that, but Perri delivered one knockout number after another on Saturday. She also succeeded in capturing the 50-year-old character’s vitality as well as her fragility.

Burnham looks younger than some of the Joes I’ve seen, but he seemed to grow older before our eyes as he delivered Joe’s most knowing lines. His looks made Norma’s more cougar-like moments more stark and intense. And he, too, handled the songs beautifully, including some of the show’s more awkward as well as some of its wittier lyrics.

Large loomed large as Max, with every perfectly controlled note and every glowering look leaping off the stage, enhancing our understanding of a character whose own life has been tarnished almost as much as those of Norma and Joe. At least by the time I saw Sunset on the closing weekend, the rest of the ensemble and technical elements were razor-sharp.

Ashley Fox Linton and David Burnham
Ashley Fox Linton and David Burnham

The show itself? Under the direction of Larry Raben, it too is a knockout. As mentioned above, I have a few quibbles with a few of the Don Black/Christopher Hampton lyrics, but Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is probably his best (I’d have to see Evita again to be more conclusive about that) — an intoxicating blend of romance, mystery, sentiment and cynicism. And of course the story — originally created by Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. —  is one of those irresistible Hollywood creations that fascinates on several levels. Lloyd Webber certainly never worked with stronger narrative material.

The design is a cut below the lavish Shubert Theatre creation from 1993, but the show doesn’t need to be all that ritzy, as I observed in this review of the 1999 tour that starred Petula Clark. Shorn of some of its finery, the story returns closer to its film noir roots. I’m sorry I didn’t get to report about MTW’s production while there was still time to see it, but does MTW ever consider extending its runs?  Three weeks just isn’t enough time for the word to spread — especially when the LA Times is AWOL.

It’s about time that Musical Theatre West again dares to tackle a new musical, complete with a new score. No, I don’t mean the area premiere of a New York hit, which it has done now and then, but rather a musical developed within Southern California. And I don’t mean a jukebox musical using previously well-established tunes, such as Summer of Love, which it presented in 2011.

This hypothetical new musical wouldn’t have to be an entirely start-from-scratch affair. Let’s say that MTW were to pick up something such as Falling for Make Believe, the recent hit about Rodgers and Hart that played the considerably smaller Colony.  MTW wouldn’t have the honor of calling the second production a premiere — but it probably would seem like a premiere to most of the MTW audience, which doesn’t travel to Burbank very often to see new musicals.

Many a new musical is born each year within LA’s even smaller, sub-100-seat theaters, but most of these “world premieres” never see the rest of the world. Of course a show would have to be able to operate on a certain scale to jump from a 99-seat level to the wide stage of the Carpenter Center and its 1000-plus seats. Still, does MTW keep an eye on that scene? Could it offer even a reading to any possible candidates? Most of its public readings are of potential revivals, including the aforementioned City of Angels, which will receive a MTW reading on Aug. 25.

I dipped into the smaller theater world’s musical scene over the weekend with The Island, a SkyPilot Theatre production at T.U. Studios in NoHo, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at Chance Theater and Doma Theatre’s Nine at the Met.

Lindsey Mixon in "The Island." Photo by Heidi Marie.
Lindsey Mixon in “The Island.” Photo by Heidi Marie.

Only one of these, The Island, is a premiere, and no, I don’t think it’s ready for Musical Theatre West. It has an intriguing concept — a modern-day Tempest, set in an “alternate timeline when Italy’s city-states never united,” so Naples and Milan are still sovereign powers. But the mix of contemporary gadgets and clothes and profanity with sorcery and spells never feels like a comfortable fit in Jonathan Price’s book.

The score, by Price with lyrics by Chana Wise, never grabs the listeners, and some of the numbers — including what is supposed to be the first-act finale — sound like novelty ditties that have absolutely no narrative power or relevance. The electronic accompaniment sounds, well, rinky-dink.

Chance Theater has brought to Anaheim what is presumably the New York version of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson — the satirical musical that Center Theatre Group introduced to the world in 2008 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.

My memories of the details of that 2008 production have faded, but here is an interview in which the book writer Alex Timbers described the changes between the LA and New York productions.

As opposed to the music for The Island, Michael Friedman’s emo-punk score grabs the audience and won’t let go. And Kari Hayter’s cast appears to have consumed a lot of caffeine in the hour before curtain time. The energy level is sky-high.

The show, as in LA, creates a lot of fun in its conceit that Andrew Jackson — who doesn’t really age until the very last scene — and his supporters were basically unthinking, red-neck adolescents who didn’t much bother with the fine print or the rights of Native Americans, en route to expanding the nation and taking over the reins of power in Washington from the elite snobs of the Northeast. As in The Island, the language is contemporary and often crude, but at least in this case there is a satirical point behind the jarring time-shifts, with obvious relevance to more recent American political figures.

Keaton Williams and Ashley Arlene Nelson in "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson." Photo by Thamer Majjall/True Image Studio.
Keaton Williams and Ashley Arlene Nelson in “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” Photo by Thamer Majjall/True Image Studio.

The problem is that the show remains at a sketch-comedy level throughout most of its uninterrupted duration. The comedy is professionally proficient, but it’s never quite as funny as you expect it to become. Still, you certainly won’t fall asleep.

Like SkyPilot with The Island, Doma Theatre goes Italian with a revival of Nine, inexplicably a Tony winner from the ‘80s. Loosely based on Fellini’s movie , it depicts an Italian filmmaker who’s caught between wife, lover, boyhood memories and a producer with a deadline.

Arthur Kopit’s book meanders, and Maury Yeston’s score is surprisingly lackluster. I’ve now seen at least three productions of Nine, but I think it will take another six before I’m able to remember any of the songs a day later. I’d much prefer to see a revival of the Kopit/Yeston Phantom, which I recall preferring over Lloyd Webber’s version from the same era.

The Island, T. U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through Aug 18. www.SkyPilotTheatre.com. 800-838-3006.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. Thu 7:45 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 and 7 pm. www.ChanceTheater.com. 714-777-3033.

Nine, Met Theatre, 1089 N Oxford Ave., LA. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Through Aug 18. www.DomaTheatre.com. 323-802-4990.

Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.