At NSMT, Ripley puts her stamp on ‘Sunset,’ Norma

Nicholas Rodriguez (Joe Gillis) and Alice Ripley (Norma Desmond) in SUNSET BOULEVARD at North Shore Music Theater thru October 6. Photo©Paul Lyden Photography

BEVERLY – When the opportunity came around, Tony Award-winning actress Alice Ripley was ready for her close-up.

Ripley’s first appearance at North Shore Music was as Johanna in NSMT’s 1994 production of “Sweeney Todd,” the same year she had a career breakthrough by playing Betty Schaefer in the Broadway production of “Sunset Boulevard” under the inimitable Glenn Close as aging film star Norma Desmond. She also played Betty under Betty Buckley and Elaine Page as Norma.

In an interview, Ripley said everything she learned during a two-year run in the show helped prepare her for her own turn as Norma, and NSMT and its patrons are the beneficiaries.

Ripley puts her own stamp on the role in NSMT’s sterling production of “Sunset Boulevard,” now onstage through Oct. 6.

For my money, “Sunset Boulevard” remains the best score Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber ever brought to Broadway, and the NSMT production has lovingly, carefully and skillfully presented it in its full glory. 

The musical, with lyrics and book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton  based on Billy Wilder’s classic film noir from 1950 starring Gloria Swanson, follows the broke and desperate screenwriter Joe Gillis (Nicholas Rodriguez) after he ducks into Norma’s mansion by chance, and soon finds himself in a trap of his own making.

NSMT faced a host of challenges in staging the work in its in-the-round facility,  not the least of which was designing a musical that takes place in a large Hollywood mansion featuring a grand staircase, but NSMT owner/producer Bill Hanney – a fan of the show — and his host of designers stepped up to the plate and answered the challenge.

Nicholas Rodriguez (Joe Gillis) and Lizzie Klemperer (Betty Schaefer) in SUNSET BOULEVARD at North Shore Music Theater thru October 6. Photo©Paul Lyden Photography

Hanney allowed set designer Kyle Dixon to remove 200 seats to install a large set featuring the aforementioned staircase.

They also included other grand touches, including Norma’s expensive touring car, driven right up onto the stage.

After the movies transitioned from silent to talkies, the career of star Norma Desmond plummeted, and she retreated to her aging mansion on Sunset Boulevard, there cared for by her loyal but mysterious servant, Max von Mayerling (William Michals).

When a broke Gillis stumbles into her life, she engages him to help rewrite a screenplay and also offers room and board … at a price. He is trying to stave off repossession of his car and having to abandon his Hollywood dreams and retreat to a newspaper in Dayton, Oh. Norma offers him work in helping to rewrite a screenplay she hopes will be shot by Cecil B. DeMille (Neil Mayer).

But someone else wants Joe’s help with a writing project – a pretty young script reader named Betty Schaefer (Lizzie Klemperer), the fiancée of Joe’s best friend Artie Green (Kevin Massey). Betty, who had dumped on one of Joe’s scripts during a meeting with studio boss Sheldrake (Robert Saoud), urges Joe to work with her in rewriting one of Joe’s earlier works into something they could sell to the studios.

Joe quickly becomes something of a kept man, but when trying to escape from her grasp, Norma executes a desperation move intended to keep him in place and away from Betty.

It is a pop opera — popera — nearly sung through. Lloyd Webber’s lush, soaring melodies include two numbers — “With One Look” and “As if We Never Said Goodbye” – that are quite simply two of the better songs ever written for a leading lady, and Ripley, of course, performs them flawlessly, as if she had been singing them all her life, or perhaps, listening to them being sung by wonderful actresses for more than two years.  

As Gillis, Rodriguez takes full advantage of every big moment, especially in his bitter, cynical rendition of “Sunset Boulevard” and his soaring love duet with Klemperer’s Betty in “Too Much in Love to Care.”

The costumes, especially Norma’s flowing gowns fit for a Hollywood star, are dazzling, with Kelly Baker providing additional designs to augment Anthony Powell’s work on Broadway.

NSMT Artistic Director Kevin P. Hill took it upon himself to direct and choreograph, and he does his usual fine job, especially in coordinating the production numbers, such as “Let’s Have Lunch,” a portrayal of Hollywood, its characters, idiosyncrasies and its innate shallowness.

Milton Granger has been entrusted with leading the NSMT orchestra in some of the greatest scores in musical theater history, as well as backboning the iconic annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”

Did NSMT meet all its challenges? Staging show in the round? Check. Inspired casting? Check. Finding a Norma who can stand with the other great Norma’s? Check, check and check.

As Ripley’s Norma slowly descends into madness, you’ll be mesmerized. Norma herself said: “Great stars have great pride.” There’s a lot to be proud about in this production.  

The North Shore Music Theatre production of “Sunset Boulevard.” Book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, based on the Billy Wilder movie. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Directed and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill. At the North Shore Music Theatre through Oct. 6.

William Michals (Max von Mayerling) , Alice Ripley (Norma Desmond), and Nicholas Rodriguez (Joe Gillis) in SUNSET BOULEVARD at North Shore Music Theater thru October 6. Photo©Paul Lyden Photography