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The sun rises on the LI-born director of 'Sunset Boulevard'

David Hess, left, Judy McLane and Bryant Martin

David Hess, left, Judy McLane and Bryant Martin star in the musical "Sunset Boulevard," based on the Oscar-winning movie, at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Photo Credit: Michael DeCristofaro

“I was a valet driver, a volunteer usher, anything that would allow me a chance to get inside the building,” says Matt Kunkel of his early relationship with the John W. Engeman Theater, five minutes down the road from his childhood home in Northport. At 24, he is still hanging around the theater.

Now, however, he sits in the director’s chair, overseeing the Engeman’s production of “Sunset Boulevard,” the Tony Award-winning Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about fame and ambition based on Billy Wilder’s legendary 1950 film about Hollywood, which runs through Oct. 27. “It’s really an opera, one about a dethroned queen,” Kunkel says.

Kunkel is a graduate of the Long Island High School for the Arts in Syosset and the University of Michigan, where he studied theater performance directing. His own career climb has involved a variety of roles at the Engeman (as a performer, instructor and director) and at other venues, including Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, and St. Louis’ Municipal Opera Theatre, where he directed a production starring Chita Rivera and Tommy Tune.

“I knew since I was in high school that I wanted to be in the business. As an actor, I’m OK, but not great,” Kunkel admits. “I had to retool and refocus.”

His strategy stands in stark contrast to that practiced by Norma Desmond, the faded silent movie queen at the center of “Sunset Boulevard” and played by Drama Desk-nominated actress Judy McLane. The show revolves around her disillusionment with Hollywood as she attempts a return to the screen, all the while clutching to the past in her once-glorious mansion on the storied Los Angeles boulevard.

“It’s about survival,” says Kunkel, “about people who are trying to make it and who have made it and about how difficult that is. It points a finger at the illusion of Hollywood and its oversupply of dreamers.”

Concerned about how the Hollywood community would react to the film’s cynical message, Kunkel notes that screenwriters Wilder, Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman Jr. kept the story’s full details under wraps, submitting the script — a supposed adaption of the nonexistent story “A Can of Beans” —a few pages at a time. “They created a masterpiece by figuring it out as they went along.”

Kunkel says he is particularly pleased to be directing the musical in the Engeman’s intimate space. Less distracted by the opulent details of the elaborate Broadway set, he says, audiences are likely to “focus on the actors and their relationships and become even more invested in the story. In the film, the director was able to lose stuff around the actors when he wanted to.”

With his career in high gear, it is clear Kunkel shares the sentiment dramatically declared by the musical’s delusional protagonist in the final scene after she has murdered her lover. “All right, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma surrounded by news cameras she believes belong to the famous director, “I’m ready for my close-up.” Kunkel is ready for his, too.

 

WHAT “Sunset Boulevard”

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Friday, Wednesday and Thursday and 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, through Oct. 27, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport

INFO $75-$80; 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com

These guys will be undressed to thrill

Chippendale's guys, they're not. But even if their abs aren't toned, the vocal tones of the male stars of "The Full Monty" are nothing short of perfect. The show, which is based on the popular 1997 movie, shifts the action from Sheffield, England, to Buffalo, New York, and follows the exploits of unemployed steelworkers who decide to earn money by baring it all. In the process, they expose their true emotions as well as their physical attributes. Audiences will be treated to a host of entertaining numbers including the climactic "Let It Go," in which the men do precisely that with their clothing.

WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Friday and Thursday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, through Oct. 20, Argyle Theatre, 34 W. Main St., Babylon

INFO $49-$74 ($54-$79 Saturday nights); 844-631-5483, argyletheatre.com

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