Sunset Boulevard @ Cohoes Music Hall, 4/5/12

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Call her the original Hollywood cougar.

Long before Demi Moore or the Courtney Cox TV show, Norma Desmond sunk her claws into the young struggling writer Joe Gillis in Billy Wilder’s classic noir film “Sunset Boulevard.”

Andrew Lloyd Weber’s version of “Sunset” opened Thursday night at Cohoes Music Hall in a solid production directed by Jim Charles that captures the musical’s creepy psycho-sexual tension that veers more toward the Gothic than the noir.

The design and lighting of Desmond’s gloomy and opulent mansion by Jen Pricce Fick and Mathew J. Fick, complete with long ornate staircase, gives plenty of dark shadows and old time photographs to reflect the darkness of Norma’s mind, a once-famous silent film actress now out of step with the times and deluded about the prospects of her return.

By accident, Joe runs into her. She sees in the writer a chance for her script to become her comeback; he sees in her wealth a chance to live comfortably. The thing is, she refuses to let him go, even as he falls for Betty, an aspiring screenwriter.

As Norma, Catherine Fries Vaughn succeeds in straddling the fine line between madness and camp with her acting, and especially rises to the challenge of this difficult role by making the character sympathetic through the standout song “As if We Never Said Goodbye” in Act II.

Michael Turay presents a passive Gillis in Act 1, who is hard to sympathize with, but that changes in Act 2 when he reveals Joe’s anger at being trapped by Norma through the song “Sunset Boulevard” and with the passionate duet he shares with strong-voiced Christina King, as Betty, “Too Much in Love to Care,” which is the best song of the production.

Also worth mentioning is Jerry Christakos as Norma’s butler, Max, who powers through “Greatest Star of All” in Act 1 in a way that makes you feel for both him and for Norma, at least as she once was.

The band, under the direction of Joshua Zecher-Ross, plays with strength and finesse throughout, though at times the actors’ words are lost, especially in the lively, though not really memorable, ensemble numbers.

That, however, is not a problem with the production; rather it is with the writing, in which the ensemble numbers lack the musical or dramatic punch to make them as satisfying as the solos or duets. Weber shines in his love songs, and so does this production.

The larger question, though, is: In a time of 24/7 celebrity gossip, does a story about how the Hollywood machine creates and destroys stars still hold any power, especially when it is played straight?

Nearly 20 years ago, “Sunset” won the Tony for best musical, but since then musicals that poke fun of musicals (such as “The Producers” and “Book of Mormon”) have gotten accolades. In that light, the “Sunset” production in the beautiful and historic Cohoes Music Hall feels historic, too, instead of something fresh and of this time.

Theater review
“Sunset Boulevard”
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Cohoes Music Hall, 58 Remsen St., Cohoes
Running time: 2 ½ hours, with one 15-minute intermission
Continues: 8 p.m. Friday, Saturday; 3 p.m. Saturday; and 8 p.m. April 12-14, and 3 p.m. April 14-15
Tickets: $26-$31
Info: 518-237-5858; http://www.cohoesmusichall.com

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