‘Sunset Boulevard’ at the Kennedy Center quakes with a volcanic Norma


I never heard Patti LuPone perform as the original Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lugubrious noir-sical, based on Billy Wilder’s storied 1950 film. But now that I’ve experienced Stephanie J. Block belting the show’s two standout numbers, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” I know for absolute certain that the only thing more prodigious than Norma’s delusions are Norma’s high notes.

Draped by costume designer Alejo Vietti in old Hollywood glamour — wait for her in a metallic chiffon get-up, embedded with Swarovski crystals — Block seizes each melodic moment like a Green Beret charging a key hill. She’s ecstatically in command in these interludes, as well as in Norma’s scary final mad scene, in the respectable revival of the 1993 musical in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater.

As with the role of Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” a Norma over whom you spend the trip home marveling is the definitive ingredient of a worthy version of this show. And that is essentially what this production for the arts center’s Broadway Center Stage series provides. It’s well done, but the show is far from Lloyd Webber’s best work, with singsong melodies that repeat so frequently that the show’s title might have been “Sunset Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard.”

The Center Stage series, staged concert-style and highlighting the robust musicianship of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, roared back to life this season with a pitch-perfect “Guys and Dolls.” Under Sammi Cannold’s direction, “Sunset Boulevard” is given its serviceable due. This is a result of Vietti’s shimmering fashion sense and the vocal authority of Block, Nathan Gunn as Norma’s grim butler, Max von Mayerling, and Derek Klena, in the show’s other pivotal role. He plays Joe Gillis, the down-on-his-luck Tinseltown screenwriter whom demented Norma recruits for her comeback.

Everything about the musical is an homage to Wilder’s movie, which was turned timeless by the life-mirroring performance of Gloria Swanson, the silent film star making her own electric return to the talkies. Lloyd Webber’s orchestrations (with David Cullen) reach for the lush moodiness of a cinematic score, and Cannold doubles down on the illusion: Red curtains part upstage to reveal a huge screen, on which set designer Paul Tate dePoo III projects black-and-white footage of mid-century Hollywood, and brief suggestions of the films that made Norma a legend. Cannold devises a nice directorial addition: a silent, live reverie through which we see a younger Norma in one of her triumphant parts, as Joan of Arc.

It’s Norma’s fixation on another of her classic roles, as Salomé, that foreshadows the evening’s tragic turn of events: The plot itself is a bit of a slog, which the clunky book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton do little to relieve. The scenes in which movie-studio insiders, played by the ensemble, exchange barbs about their struggles for fame and fortune, run long and thick with Hollywood cliches, and a melody line recycled relentlessly, again and again and again and again.

These deficits put enormous pressure on the character of Norma herself, whose desperation for a career resuscitation, after 20 years out of the limelight, has to be kind of delicious. That’s why the part is a magnet for actresses of imposing and hyperdramatic presence, among them Glenn Close, who won a Tony Award for her performance, and Betty Buckley, who succeeded her on Broadway. (LuPone played Norma in the London original production.) What the portrayals by Close and Buckley bottled was Norma’s grandeur, her entrapment in the eerie, solitary confinement of her own mythmaking.

Block, a onetime Elphaba who herself won a Tony playing Cher, is an intriguing inheritor of the part: Her Norma is less haughty than clingy and more obsessively devoted to locking down Joe’s affections. She and Cannold seem to have calculated that the gargoyle aspects of monstrous Norma — as captured everlastingly in the stills of Swanson — should become apparent only step by expositional step, and then operatically in the musical’s final movement, as Joe slips from her grasp. (It wouldn’t hurt if Auli’i Cravalho added a little more steel to her portrayal of Norma’s younger romantic rival, Betty Schaefer.)

Block’s performance culminates in those two meaty numbers that scale up the character’s fatal flaw — her conviction that the image that exists in two celluloid dimensions can continue to thrive in three. The exhilaration that the actress engenders in captivating crescendos is a testament to the all-consuming power of self-deception.

Sunset Boulevard, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Sammi Cannold. Sets and projections, Paul Tate dePoo III; costumes, Alejo Vietti; lighting, Cory Pattak; sound Kai Harada and Haley Parcher; music direction, Ben Cohn; choreography, Emily Maltby. With Paul Schoeffler, Michael Maliakel. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Feb. 8 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.

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