Andrew Lloyd Webber's1993 Broadway musical adaptation of Billy Wilder's "Sunset Boulevard" sets itself the impossible task of trying to emulate that great 1950 movie. Although this musical doesn't come close, its distillation of that inside-Hollywood story and Webber's film noir-tinged melodic score capture enough of the movie's essence to make for an enjoyable evening at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre.
One of the most daunting aspects of such an adaptation is that the central performances in the movie are so memorable. Norma Desmond, the retired silent screen star living in a mansion that could pass for a mausoleum, allowed Gloria Swanson to essentially play herself.
Joe Gillis, the financially pressed screenwriter who stumbles into her house and isn't averse to being a paid companion, provided a showcase for William Holden's ability to play a flawed and yet sympathetic character.
And as Max Von Mayerling, Norma's all-purpose servant, the real-life silent film director Erich von Stroheim got to play a variation on his own background.
The lead actors in the local production directed by Eric J. Potter fill those iconic roles with mixed success. Nadine Haas Wellington certainly looks like Norma Desmond. She's perilously slender and cranky as a silent movie queen who refuses to acknowledge that the public abandoned her with the coming of sound.
Wellington's Norma also does a swell job of vamping around the mansion in a seemingly endless succession of glamorous gowns designed by Will E. Crowther, whose many outfits for Norma and others qualify him as the real star of this production. A design co-star is set designer G. Maurice "Moe" Conn, who constructs a detail-rich, Hollywood haunted house that includes the crucial long staircase for the deluded Norma to descend.
The main thing that prevents Wellington from more fully inhabiting this exotic character is that she tends to rush both her spoken and sung lines. She also tends to push her voice to its upper limits in her songs. If she slowed down her delivery and brought down her voice, it would better emphasize Norma's imperious and seductive qualities.
Faring much better is Tom Burns as Joe Gillis. He handily conveys a sense of Joe as a handsome nice guy who's also morally weak; and correspondingly, the sense that Joe is increasingly filled with self-loathing for his own weakness. Burns is a charismatic stage presence, and he smoothly brings strong feeling to numbers including the title tune.
Falling flat is John Amato as Max Von Mayerling. He melts into the over-the-top domestic decor even more than the character should, and would benefit from bringing more of the German-accented authoritarian traits that von Stroheim brought to the screen character.
The supporting players are generally capable, although Jerry Geitka as veteran director Cecil B. De Mille could do more to bring out his regal presence on the Paramount lot.
Kelsey Lake is the most endearing of the supporting players. She portrays Betty Schaefer, the perky studio assistant whose tentative romantic relationship with Joe is challenged by the all-controlling Norma. Lake gives such a fresh performance and, yes, is so convincingly dressed in Crowther's circa 1950 dresses, that she really does evoke the immediate postwar period. And Lake and Burns sweetly harmonize in such duets as "Girl Meets Boy" and "Too Much in Love to Care."
There's also some nice work by the ensemble representing assorted studio employees, particularly in "This Time Next Year," a lively song set at aNew Year's Eveparty.
Here and throughout the show, musical director Terri Mathews generates steady support down in the pit; a little more orchestral heft in some numbers wouldn't hurt, though.
Although not every production number or performance works as well as one might hope for, this is an ambitious production in terms of set design, costuming, scene changes, choreography and general evocation of an old-time Hollywood setting. Like Norma Desmond striking poses while descending the stairs, it's ready for its close-up.
"Sunset Boulevard" runs through Aug. 5 at Cockpit in Court Summer Theatre, on the Essex campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, 7201 Rossville Boulevard. Tickets are $20, $18 for seniors, $12 for children. Call 443-840-2787 or go to http://www.ccbcmd.edu/arts.