So it's fitting, in a way, that I was involved in a minor car accident on my way to Signature Theatre to see its new staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1994 musical gloss on the movie, missing the first 15 minutes of the show. I entered just before Norma -- here inhabited by Florence Lacey, the last actor to play Eva Peron in "Evita's" original Broadway run -- does. Upon learning Joe (sturdy D.B. Bonds) is a writer, she demands that he doctor the swollen script of a "Salome" remake via which Norma plans a comeback that everyone around her -- meaning Joe and her overprotective butler, Max -- knows will never materialize.
|IF YOU GO|
|» Where: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington|
|» When: Through Feb. 13, 2011|
|» Info: signature-theatre.org|
What's apparent from the 140 minutes I did see is that this is a first-rate version of the second- or possibly third-rate musical that Webber hath wrung from Wilder's unimpeachable movie. Signature looks to have spared no expense: Scenic designer Daniel Conway has impressively re-created, in the same space, both Norma's haunted old eight-bedroom palace and the ropes, lights, and sandbags of a midcentury soundstage. Norma's 1929 Isotta-Fraschini -- the luxury car that contributes a key plot point -- is here, too. Even better, director Eric Schaeffer has stuffed a 20-piece orchestra into the intimate, 276-seat confines of Signature's main house. Conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch, the musicians sound sublime though the songs are, with one or two exceptions, ersatz and maddeningly repetitive even by Webber standards. You resent their intrusion almost every time one limps in to interrupt the story that book writers and, far less successfully, lyricists Don Black and Christopher Hampton have preserved intact from Wilder and Charles Brackett's screenplay, which remains a harrowing, wickedly funny tale of obsession and compromise in Hollywood.
Though the musical replaces the film's sly, self-referential layers with a shapeless heap of soundalike tunes, there's still plenty to enjoy. Ed Dixon is a chilling presence as the fallen filmmaker-cum-servant Max (filmmaker Erich von Stroheim had the role in the movie), and Signature regular Harry A. Winter is great fun in his lone scene as Cecil B. DeMille (played onscreen by one Cecil B. DeMille).
Joe's romance with ambitious script reader Betty (Susan Derry) never quite heats up, perhaps because Schaeffer repeatedly has Bonds and Derry wrap their arms around each other's waists and sing full-bore into one another's faces, spittle flying. At least they look like they mean it. Elsewhere, so seldom does the musical dare to step outside the film's long shadow that when it does, in a number wherein Norma is subjected to a cruel and ridiculous regimen of anti-aging treatments, you can feel the behemoth begin suddenly to breathe. The song is called "A Little Suffering," and the show could use a lot more like it.