Several first timers (including yours truly) filled the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater this past weekend at Radio Redux’s one-weekend run of the Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard.
Now in its 11th season, Radio Redux, directed by founder Fred Crafts, is as charming and precise as watching radio can get.
Warm red lighting and a row of shimmering microphones set the stage for Sunset Boulevard. The nearly hour-long production, adapted from the now defunct Lux Radio Theatre series of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, is padded with music, trivia and old-timey commercials. A lecture from historian Patrick Luciano preceded the show, followed by jazzy find-your-seat beats played by the Radio Redux Rhythmaires.
Writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s weighty tale of Hollywood’s underbelly follows a down-on-his-luck B-list writer, Joe Gillis (Peter van de Graaff) to the careworn mansion of Norma Desmond (Rebecca Nachison), a silver screen queen lost in time.
Forgotten by the industry, a desperate and delusional Desmond, along with the help of Joe and her creepy butler, Max (Achilles Massahos) prepares for her return to the screen.
The iconic character of Desmond imitates real-life silent film actresses lost in the cultural shift, including Gloria Swanson, who originated the character of Desmond in the movie, and Mae Murray, who comically criticized Swanson’s over the top, crazy-eyes performance saying, “None of us floozies were that nuts!”
Nachison is positively regal in black, delivering unhinged nobility, but leaving out much of the crazy.
Van de Graaff is as dapper as voices get as Sunset Boulevard’s narrator and resident boy toy, Joe. Massahos is pitiful and perfect as Desmond’s dutiful butler and (plot twist) ex-husband.
Watching sound effects specialists Al Villanueva and Judy Sinnott is a behind the scenes treat. Who knew clicking heels and closing doors could be fun to watch? And if you’re not at risk for being lulled to sleep by soothing, cartoony 50’s voices, closing your eyes can conjure up a time warp to old Hollywood.
Music is a big focal point for Crafts. The Rhythmaires carry the show in and out of intermission, intentionally playing to the inherent nature of the characters. Pre-second act, vocalist Kirsten Parmeter belts out a spicy “Whatever Norma Wants,” a spin on the Damn Yankees hit “Whatever Lola Wants.”
This CliffsNotes version of Sunset Boulevard leaves in most of the goodies but lacks a few developmental scenes necessary to the plot.
The relationship between Joe and his love interest, Betty Schaefer (Kim Donahey), feels rushed. Donahey is lovely, but her Betty doesn’t get enough action to become more than two-dimensional lollipops and rainbows.
Sexual tension is also missing. A few key sexy-ish scenes remain, but kissing and close bodies are only suggested, which is probably good since simulated kissing sounds are just plain gross.
Radio Redux maintains all the tragedy of the original. The final scene is especially chilling. The warm glow of the stage fades to a single spotlight on Nachison.
Everything around her recedes into the shadows as she delivers the irony of her final performance: “All right Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” The moments before darkness ooze heartbreak and finality, a stunning exclamation for Norma Desmond and the countless real-life victims of Hollywood.
Radio Redux is carefully crafted imaginative theater, both fresh and nostalgic for audiences of any age.
Catch Radio Redux’s next show, Stagecoach, running April 3 through 5 at the Hult Center. Tickets and more info at RadioReduxUSA.com.