By Bridgette M. Redman
For those who will never surrender, the only option is glory – whether it be in laurel-crowned victory or horrifying loss. At the Augusta Barn, it becomes possible to see both simultaneously in the stellar production of Norma Desmond’s tragic fall from grace. The character experiences the loss, the production is sheer victory.
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Sunset Boulevard” has all the elements of classical tragedy with its larger than life heroine, the former star of the silent movie genre who is convinced she will make a triumphant return by getting Cecil B. DeMille to direct her script of Salome, with the aging starlet playing the role of the 16-year-old dancer.
Kim Zimmer’s Norma commands the stage with a fearsome presence. Her voice is clear, powerful and emotional, whether she is eulogizing her dead ape, swearing her love or expressing how at home she feels back in the studio. Zimmer is both frightening and endearing. Like Penelope Alex’s Blanche in “Streetcar Named Desire,” she commands sympathy even while portraying an unlikeable personality. So effectively does she seduce, that at the end of the musical, the loss of her sanity has greater emotional impact than the death of the person she murders. Her delivery of the musical’s famous closing line inspires goose bumps, even with the foreknowledge of what she’s about to say.
As all that made Norma famous is irretrievably lost to her, Zimmer wrenchingly portrays what it is like to have the sun set on one’s self-identity. She grasps at youth and blindly ignores reality, lest its barbs bleed her dry.
It’s easy to see why Norma falls for Eric Parker’s Joe Gillis. Parker is intense in the way he listens, the perfect audience for a woman who defines herself through her fans. His stillness speaks as voluminously as his narration of Norma’s downfall. Parker wears Gillis’ cynicism well, a wry self-awareness of his compromised values apparent in each of his choices.
Roy Brown gives Max Von Mayerling his own tragic dignity, playing his loyalty fiercely and his protectiveness unwavering. He peels back the layers slowly, letting the relationships build in intensity until they reach their tragic conclusions. His work with Zimmer in the final scene is nothing short of breathtaking.
This trio dominates the musical with amazing chemistry and skilled performances. Yet, it is not just their show. A large cast supports the leads with equally strong voices, character work and commitment. “Sunset Boulevard” is the culmination of Augusta’s season, and everyone performs at peak levels. The sets are opulent and the costuming varied in all but quality, which remained first-rate.
“Sunset Boulevard” bestows a powerful closing to the Augusta season with echoes of each of their previous performances. Norma dreams the impossible dream of “The Man of La Mancha,” engages in the soul-sapping pursuit of fame that doomed the “Chicago” ladies’ character, mirrored the descent into madness found in “Streetcar” all while searching for the happy ever after of “Cinderella.” For those that have missed the Augusta Barn season so far, “Sunset Boulevard” marks the opportunity to experience the magic of their 65th season.
Barn Theatre, 13351 W. M-96, Augusta. Tuesday-Sunday through Sept. 4. $34. 269-731-4121. http://www.barntheatre.com