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Hollywood classic ‘Sunset Boulevard’ reanimated on Short North Stage

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Gina Handy and Chris Shea portray Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis in their upcoming production of 'Sunset Boulevard. Credit: Courtesy of Noah Rogers

Gina Handy and Chris Shea portray Norma Desmond and Joe Gillis in their upcoming production of ‘Sunset Boulevard.
Credit: Courtesy of Noah Rogers

A local Columbus theater is bringing one of Hollywood’s most famous streets to High Street with a musical that has been described as too big to produce. “Sunset Boulevard,” the Short North Stage’s latest production, is a musical based on the 1950 movie of the same name, with music written by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

The story revolves around Joe Gillis, a screenwriter, and Norma Desmond, a faded silent film star looking to make her comeback.

“(Norma) kind of captures Joe in this plan to help her write this movie so that she can make her return to the big screen because she hasn’t been on screen for 20 to 30 years,” said Noah Rogers, associate producer at the Short North Stage.

While he Rogers said play has broad appeal, the musical will be especially recognizable to anyone who has seen or knows about its movie counterpart.

“Some of the lyrics and lines are directly from the movie, so if you’re familiar with the movie, you will definitely be familiar with the show once it starts,” Rogers said.

“Sunset Boulevard” is known outside of Broadway for its size, Rogers said.

“People don’t do this show because it is so epic,” Rogers said. “The cast on Broadway had like 30 or 40 people in it. Our cast has 16, so they’re playing multiple roles.”

The show will also feature a live orchestra, which was also reduced for space.

Music director Tim Valentine — who is also an alumni program manager in Ohio State’s College of Arts and Sciences — said the orchestra rearranged a 28-piece music arrangement down to 10 pieces.

“For our production, we have reduced the orchestra by combining artificial sounds through keyboards with live instruments so the mixture of live and artificial sounds creates a nice balanced sound,” Valentine said in an email. “In the original orchestra, many parts were doubled, so we were able to reduce and combine parts to create a smaller ensemble and still preserve the intended sound.”

Short North Stage’s production marks the regional premiere of the show, Rogers said.

Gina Handy, the lead actress in the Short North’s production, said Desmond is a “complex character.”

“I think that a lot of people associate craziness with her, but I think that probably is the biggest challenge — finding her moments of sanity and where she is driven into that insane part of herself,” Handy said. “She’s just highly emotional, she’s erratic, she’s demanding and all as a result of being at the absolute top of stardom and then falling to the absolute bottom and then figuring out how to exist in that world.”

To prepare for the role, Handy watched the 1950 movie and studied Patti LuPone and Glenn Close’s renditions of the character in the mid-1990s. Going through a lot of experimentation, Handy wanted to grasp the complex relationship between Desmond and Gillis.

“She feels that he is the key to getting her back to where she was, and so he becomes extremely important in her life very quickly,” she said.

However, Desmond isn’t the only character that finds herself surrounded with drama.

Cassie Rea, who is set to portray Betty Schaefer, a reader at Paramount Studios, explains her character’s relationship with Gillis.

“She is wanting to get her foot in the door as a writer,” Rea said. “Engaged to Artie (Green), I start writing a script with Joe, the main character, and we fall in love. We work together and kind of start to hit it off and it gets complicated because I’m already engaged. It creates conflict there.”

In describing themes that are highlighted in the musical, Rogers’ biggest takeaway is the values — and lack of — honesty and authenticity.

“Norma has a hard time being authentic with herself,” Rogers said. “Her butler is this man named Max and he was one of the three directors that fostered her as a young child to get into silent films and he ended up marrying her. Then he stayed with her all those years and he writes her fan letters and he builds this illusion that she is still the greatest star of all.”

Rogers also described a struggle between Gillis, originally from Dayton, Ohio, and the phoniness of Hollywood and Gillis.

“He goes and meets Norma who seems like the real deal, but she’s also in this cloud of inauthenticity,” he said. “He’s just hoping to get a paycheck out of this woman, but she kind of falls in love with him and I don’t think he falls in love with her — he only pities her.”

Describing it as tragic, beautiful, complex and enjoyable, Rogers hopes that students will take a jaunt to the Short North Stage and experience the show.

“We would love for students to come and see what we do because the OSU Theatre Department is doing ‘City of Angels’ and it’s a noir-themed musical and this (‘Sunset Boulevard’) is a noir-themed musical, and if you like one, you’re going to like the other,” Rogers said. “(Students) should definitely go see both of these productions because they pair very well together.”

“City of Angels” is an upcoming collaboration between the Department of Theatre and School of Music. A homage to film noir, stylish Hollywood crime dramas, it “weaves together the stories of Stine, a writer struggling to adapt his detective novel as a screenplay, and Stone, his protagonist, a hard-boiled private eye,” according to the Department of Theatre’s website.

Rogers also encourages students to see “Sunset Boulevard” because it is not a production that many theaters do because of its size.

“You’re just not going to see something like this,” he said. “Not to name any other theater company in town, but no one else would do this.”

“Sunset Boulevard” is set to begin its run Thursday at 8 p.m. and continue until Oct. 19 at the Garden Theater.

Tickets are available at the Short North Stage website from $25 to $40. A $10 student discount will also be offered, Rogers said.

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