By Dr. Anton Anderssen
If you liked the film "Sunset Boulevard" you'll love the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version, now on stage at The Village Players in Birmingham. This Tony Award-winning musical includes a haunting score and hit songs As If We Never Said Goodbye, With One Look and the title song, Sunset Boulevard.
Directed by the Cecil B DeMille of Detroit, Michael A. Gravame, this production represents the ultimate in community theatre. Audiences are stunned from the very beginning of the show, which features lavish and effective stagecraft by set/lighting designer Dave Nelson. Costumes, from the magnificent turbans worn by Norma Desmond to the skimpy swimming trunks fitting skin-tight on Joe Gillis are display-case-worthy treasures.
Gillis has the aegis of Desmond, played wickedly by Patty Ward of Birmingham. "She goes from a little lonely in the beginning, dreaming about her comeback, to then being in love, then loses her man, loses her chance at her dream, and kind of goes a little crazy at the end. It's so touching to me, because it's about loss," said Ward. "She loses fame, she loses her fans, she loses love, she loses her hair, she loses her looks. It's an older woman being put out to pasture and feeling forgotten. The vulnerability of Norma Desmond is what really attracted me to the role. She's a sad character, and yet, there are moments of joy as well; that's the range of an actress to get to have the sparkle of love again on New Year's Eve, and companionship again. Then all her dreams are dashed when she finds out they don't really want her."
The story jumps from December 21 to New Year's without any mention of Christmas. "The individual holidays that most people would celebrate weren't important to Norma," said Ward. "It's all about her. Her Christmas was getting back in that studio and having people remember her, come up to her, like Cecil B. DeMille, so she feels like a somebody again. That was her Christmas."
Patty Ward is currently in the second year of the Ignatian Internship at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House studying to become a spiritual director. "I wish Norma had faith," pined Ward, "I'd like to convert Norma. I'd like to tell Norma that glamour and fame is not what it's all about. All of that is passing. What's really lasting is The Good News, and this is just a blip on the radar screen where our souls are eternal. We're all God's favorites, so she can be the favorite in the hereafter."
Norma was unequivocally Max's favorite. The obsequious and uxorious valet fed Desmond's vanity ad nauseum. Desmond's ego is large enough to fill her brobdingnagian abode, into which Gillis (played superbly by Leo Babcock) settles with alacrity.
Leo has been seen in more than 90 stage productions as well as several film and TV productions, freeway billboards and print ads. He loves theatre. "For me, it's a creative experience, because each time I perform it's different. Each show has a different cast, different direction, and it's a really creative outlet and product that is a collaborative effort."
"I was Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol when I was very young, and I've been involved with theatre my entire life. It's a great way to meet new people when you move from city to city. You get to bond with cast members," said Babcock. "Gillis is a phenomenal role! There's so much versatility; he connects to the audience during the narrative parts, he's in a love triangle with Betty, but he also has a respect and affection for Norma, which turns sour, of course. There is a whole gambit of emotions that plays through the character."
Gillis wasn't trying to hornswoggle Norma, but he did take advantage of her largesse. "He was down and out," said Babcock, "his car got repossessed, he had nothing. He had to do what he could just to get by. He wandered into this situation with all this wealth, and he could finally do his writing. Other things developed too, because Norma more or less ensnared him. He had fun with her, but he also had pity for her. I don't believe he was ever in love with her."
Gillis had to tergiversate between Norma and Betty, with whom love was just beginning to blossom. "I think Gills was torn there, too, because Betty was his best friend's fiancée. That was another sticky situation."