Arena Stage’s Oklahoma!, so much better than merely OK, runs through the end of December. Mary Zimmerman’s superlative Candide—what’s probably the best staging of that splendidly knotty musical I’ll live to see—runs at the Shakespeare Theatre Company at least through Jan. 9. Meanwhile the Signature Theatre has invited a notable Evita to play a different self-dramatizing Andrew Lloyd Webber heroine in an ambitious Sunset Boulevard that packs a 20-piece orchestra into the company’s 276-seat house—and the Kennedy Center has booked in the touring version of a South Pacific that took home seven Tony Awards for its Lincoln Center cousins up north. If the latter two ultimately prove somewhat less stirring than you’d hope, they sure do land agreeably on the ear—which means that even without mentioning the Olney Theatre Center’s reportedly charming production of Annie, even a Scrooge would have to admit that this winter has turned out to be a pretty grand season for soul-stirring sounds.
“Agreeable,” come to think of it, doesn’t do anything like justice to the richness of the band Jon Kalbfleisch is leading passionately through the middlebrow melodies of Sunset Boulevard. (So much money, going to pay people to play pap; what I wouldn’t give to hear this pit roar through the glories of that Candide score.) It’s the biggest orchestra Signature has ever assembled for a musical, according to a recent Washington Post feature that’s entertaining reading for those who care about such things—and with the purl of violas to augment the bass, the cello, and the violins, with a warm four-piece brass section and four keyboardists adding texture on pretty much every front, it’s downright intoxicating when the whole band leans into one of the two or three big Sunset tunes.
Trouble is that Lloyd Webber has only put two or three decent tunes into Sunset, which means the evening is an exercise in fragmentation and repetition. (You will, I promise, walk out humming the phrase “new ways to dream,” but only because practically everyone on stage will have sung it forty-eleven times by evening’s end.)
Florence Lacey, admired among cultists as a particularly effective Eva Peron back in the day—she was the last to play the part in Evita’s original Broadway run—turns out to be an intriguing choice as Norma Desmond, the mad movie star whose silent-era glories are behind her, but who’s the last to know that no one remembers her now. Lacey’s not tall, not movie-star thin. Her voice isn’t the supplest these days; it’s got a mature singer’s weathered grain. She’d be puzzling casting to some, except that the core of that voice is still strong, and she deploys it expressively —besides which the lady can act, and the facility with which she navigates Norma’s emotional tempests, plotting a return to the spotlight and seizing black-widow style on a young screenwriter to assist, adds up to a portrait of vulnerable desperation that can be genuinely touching.
Other eye-openers are Ed Dixon, in a decidedly idiosyncratic but inarguably interesting turn as Norma’s fiercely loyal butler, a costume design (credit Kathleen Geldard for building her heroine’s gowns from scratch) that evokes a lush brand of bygone glamour, plus lighting (Howell Binkley) and projections (Matthew Gardiner) that help maintain a seamless noir mood.
It’s not enough, alas, to make the production soar, despite that bourbon-and-caramel orchestra and the ingenious setting Daniel Conway has devised. (It turns the larger of Signature’s two houses into a Paramount soundstage, then flies in Norma’s grand staircase and rolls her famously elaborate limousine across the stage.) Some unhappy sightlines will spark some impatient shifting, particularly in big ensemble scenes and for patrons sitting toward the right of the house. But the real trouble with Sunset Boulevard, as ever, is that while it may be a moody tale about a storied address, it’s ultimately not much of a property.