When Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond in the 1950 Hollywood classic "Sunset Boulevard," she essentially played herself -- a faded silent film star obsessed with returning to glory. The 1994 Broadway musical, based on Billy Wilder's movie, presented a casting challenge for Andrew Lloyd Webber -- finding a balance between Norma the unhinged has-been and Norma the soprano who sings with the octave-climbing agility of an ingenue.
It's still a challenge. In Gateway Playhouse's wistfully retro "Sunset Boulevard," Loni Ackerman, who made her Broadway debut at 19 in "George M!" (1968), offers an age-appropriate Norma Desmond. She deftly deploys her mature soprano on the heartbreakingly delusional "As If We Never Said Goodbye" and in her cougar duet, "The Perfect Year," with Robert J. Townsend. But the strain shows as she reaches the wobbly heights of "With One Look."
Ackerman is handsomely supported by Townsend as Norma's captive, young-enough-to-be-her-son lover, Joe Gillis. He humors her during their New Year's Eve duet and adds heft to "Sunset's" dark underpinnings with an angry rendition of the title song.
Norma has been compiling a script -- a comeback vehicle she intends to submit to Cecil B. DeMille (the deferential Philip Hoffman), who directed her before the advent of talkies. Joe, an out-of-work screenwriter, pulls into Norma's garage to dodge repo men in pursuit of his car. He moves into the mansion and later her bedroom, under the watchful eye of loyal butler Max, a robustly operatic Joel Robertson. Norma promises to pay Joe, but showers him with gifts instead. Costume designer Trevor Bowen cleverly dresses Joe in duds he'd never choose for himself.
Though Norma threatens suicide, Joe sneaks out often enough to cowrite a script with Betty (a winsomely determined Gail Bennett) and ruin her engagement. They are a match on "Too Much in Love to Care."
The adaptable set and lighting (by Todd Ivans and Doug Harry, respectively) frame black-and-white film snippets while accommodating Norma's dramatic staircase and Rolls-Royce, which plays a key role.
Jeffrey Buschsbaum's keyboard-heavy orchestra accompanies Norma's melodrama, choreographed pageant-style -- especially as she descends the stairs one last time -- by David Engel and director Larry Raben.
The diva's public awaits her.