The Kennedy Center Broadway Center Stage production of Sunset Boulevard soars under the direction of Sammi Cannold, offering a deep dive into the mental and emotional journeys of iconic characters, notably Norma Desmond, who have been thrilling viewers since the story was first told through Billy Wilder’s iconic 1950 film of the same name.
The story — reworked into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber that premiered in London in 1993 — is told through Joe Gillis, a struggling writer looking for his next opportunity. He meets once-famous film star Norma Desmond and is hired by her to help edit a screenplay that she wrote and is planning to use to relaunch her career. Although the story is told from Joe’s point of view, Cannold’s direction cleverly weaves other characters’ perspectives and experiences into the staging. In the number “New Ways to Dream,” Norma screens one of her previous films, and we see the projections and live reenactment take place upstage. In flashback, her younger self is seen getting weighed and criticized by studio executives, and Desmond’s quiet but nuanced reactions are heartbreaking — giving more weight to the moments of melancholy throughout her story.
Stephanie J. Block is a revelation as Norma Desmond — her storytelling is a masterclass of expression and intentionality. Block has an unparalleled ability to reimagine iconic characters and present them in new ways. Her phrasing and vocal expertise deliver an authenticity that makes it feel as if we’re hearing these songs for the first time. The standout moment of the night is the show-stopping “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” As all the people on the Paramount Studio backlot freeze in dim blue light, Norma takes the spotlight to breathe in each tableau with manic contentment.
It can be easy to forget that Norma Desmond is only 50 years old in this story. She was discovered as a teenager and catapulted onto the silver screen by an industry obsessed with youth and beauty. When Hollywood turned to talkies, silent film stars like Desmond were discarded as relics. In this production, I was glad to see the vibrant costumes from Alejo Vietti, especially on Desmond. The styling keeps her grounded as an elegant middle-aged woman rather than a caricature of a senile, washed-up celebrity. Norma Desmond isn’t crazy — she is mentally ill and unable to receive the support she likely would have access to in our modern times. This is an important distinction that makes the show all the more moving.
This reimagined production also stars Derek Klena as Joe Gillis, the charismatic and driven writer. Klena’s vocals are dynamic and impressive throughout the show. The role of Joe can easily be eclipsed by the light of Norma Desmond, but Klena is a worthy counterpart to Block’s powerhouse performance. Betty Schaeffer — played by Auli’i Cravalho — is a young, smart, and sweet script reader who works with Gillis on another screenplay. Cravalho’s lovely vocals and acting are perfect for this ingenue role. Michael Maliakel is Artie Green, friend to Joe and fiance to Betty. His stage time is limited but Maliakel’s charm and wonderful voice are on full display.
Max von Mayerling, esteemed director turned dedicated butler to Desmond, is played by Nathan Gunn, whose rich baritone vocal quality evoked a warmth and stability amidst her mood swings and erratic behavior. Paul Schoeffler as Cecil B. Demille has a particularly impactful moment reuniting with Desmond, tinged with sadness while trying to stay optimistic for her sake. After she leaves, he reveals more about her start in Hollywood, lingering on the line “She’s never known the meaning of surrender.”
I always look forward to the Broadway Center Stage productions at Kennedy Center because of the inclusion of a live orchestra. The scenic design and projections by Paul Tate DePoo III are visually stunning with grand staircases and a proscenium behind the orchestra for additional scenes. The projections of black-and-white film and still images work in tandem with live reenactments, heightening the flashbacks of this noir. Cory Pattak’s lighting design embodies the grandeur of Hollywood and helps differentiate scenes and moments within the limitations of the static set. My favorite use of the scenic and lighting design is the nighttime car chase simulated in by pairs of careening headlights. The simple effect is thrilling to watch.
Lloyd Webber’s soaring score is conducted and music-directed by Ben Cohn, who leads the musicians and performers with orchestrations that drive the story. There were moments that lingered and others that quickly resolved — all working in conjunction with the actions and direction on stage. Choreography by Emily Maltby was an unexpected highlight — I didn’t anticipate seeing full dance numbers, given the physical limitations of the space, but Maltby used various levels and clever staging to showcase the talented ensemble.
It is mind-boggling that this epic production had only 11 days of rehearsal prior to opening night. The limited 8-day run is emblematic of Desmond’s career — a magnificent burst of light before moving on to the next story to be told. I’m thankful to have witnessed this dazzling production and I am grateful that Sunset Boulevard gives us a new way to dream.
Running Time: Two hours 10 minutes, with one intermission.
Sunset Boulevard plays through February 8, 2023, in the Eisenhower Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($59–$299) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for Sunset Boulevard is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. Kennedy Center’s COVID Safety Plan is here.