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‘Sunset Schmoulevard’ is Lab’s best summer parody by far


On stage through July 3 is Sunset Schmoulevard. It’s an affectionate parody of the iconic 1950 Hollywood dark comedy noir film Sunset Boulevard, which was co-written and directed by Billy Wilder and starred William Holden as Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, a former silent-film star who draws him into her demented fantasy world, where she dreams of making a triumphant return to the screen.

Sunset Schmoulevard carries on a tradition that Lab began in 2017 with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: A Parody of the Horror.  Lab followed that with Hush Up Sweet Charlotte in 2018 and Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf in 2019. While those parodies were terrific, this one is great. The acting is scintillating; the Atlantic Standard Dialect sets the mood and tone; the dialogue, snappy repartee and local references keep the audience in stitches and fully engaged; and the mocking supertitles underscore that the Lab, its cast and crew lead the way when it comes to laughing at themselves and their cheeky work on stage and behind the scenes.

There are a host of reasons why this show excels, beginning with Sue Schaffel. Two years ago, her work in Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf was outstanding. In a word, she’s brilliant as Norma Desmond where, royal watchers, she has entered the rarified air of theatrical nobility as the newly-dubbed MeloDrama Queen of Southwest Florida.

Schaffel has worked in film, television and dramatic theater, where nuance and subtlety are essential tools of the craft. Melodrama is the antithesis of this kind of work. It requires broad gestures, affected facial expressions and declamatory speech. True, as a comedic actor Schaffel has earned the accolades of zany and crazy bitch. But her achievement in Sunset Schmoulevard is remarkable from the opening scene to denouement. She makes mugging for the audience, striking a pose and descending a stairwell Olympic events. If ever there was a needy, neurotic diva, Sue Schaffel shows us that it was definitely Norma Desmond. To borrow praise from fellow thespian Gerrie Benzing, her performance in this play “is a treat you shouldn’t miss.”

Steven Coe plays two roles in Sunset Schmoulevard. Yes, he’s the co-dependent failed playwright Joe Gillis, who sacrifices his dignity on the altar of financial desperation. But he also narrates the action. It’s rare for an actor’s voice to rise to the level of a second character but, hey, we’re talking Steven Coe. He seems particularly suited to shows like Sunset Schmoulevard as anyone who saw him in The Last Night of Ballyhoo and The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940 well knows. But that’s like trying to single out a particular swath of The Birth of Venus or a piece of anatomy on Michelangelo’s David as being more  exceptional than the rest of the masterpiece. Though vastly different, Coe’s work as Joe Gillis is just as powerful and enthralling as his portrayal as Sandro Botticelli and, at the risk of repeating myself, Coe’s best work still lies ahead, as he proves with each new production.

After playing a couple of roles as a woman out for vengeance (reference Clarice Orsine in Botticelli in the Fire and Vandy Jordan in Venus in Fur), in Sunset Schmoulevard Madelaine Weymouth gets the chance to show audiences her sweet, idealistic, vulnerable side. Weymouth provides a much-needed counterbalance to the lunacy of the Desmond-Gillis-von Mayerling tandem, and it’s always a privilege to watch her interact with Coe on stage, where she usually manages to get the upper hand. Not here. In this one, Coe’s Joe Willis teaches Weymouth’s Betty Schaefer that you have to be cruel to be kind in the right measure. (Cue up the Letters Cleo version.)

Greg Wojciechowski makes his Lab Theater debut as Norma Desmond’s faithful man servant and former film director Max von Mayerling. He’s wonderful in the role. Tuxedoed and poignantly positioned in the corner most of the show, von Mayerling touches at the audience’s heartstrings with his fawning devotion and unrequited love. And Wojciechowski can tango. Whether partnered with Norma or Gillis, the man has some moves.

Brian Linthicum and Daniel Sabiston round out the cast, with a couple of cameos by stage manager Margaret Medwedew Cooley. Each does well with the supporting roles they’ve been given and Linthicum and Sabiston make the most of their opportunities to amp up the antics even when the action is away from them.

As this cast will readily agree, the true star of this show is Annette Trossbach, who adapted the screenplay for the stage in this lovingly irreverent parody of the 1950 film that was deemed so “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” it was included in 1989 in the first group of films selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the U.S. Library of Congress. After witnessing the process involved in parodying an iconic film with Whatever Happened to Baby Jane: A Parody of the Horror, Hush Up Sweet Charlotte and Death of a Streetcar Named Virginia Woolf, Trossbach got the idea that maybe she could do just as good a job. And how! But what sets this lampoon apart from these predecessors are Trossbach’s own unique brand of French-Muscadet-dry humor and all the references to other films, Lab Theater productions and pop culture.

In the latter endeavor, Trossbach elicited input from the cast. And so you see Coe saying, “I had a nightmare. I was doing dinner theater. On a train. In Florida.” The line is funny on its own merits, but is all the more droll when you discover that Coe once performed on the Murder Mystery Dinner Train.

Annette actually began workshopping the script with her Lab Theater team during the company ski trip. “By then, I had a third draft and I gave it to everyone one night as we sat around the fire,” Trossbach recalls. Many of the laughs and shictk you’ll see on stage trace back to that fun-filled night – which goes to show that the best things in life don’t just happen while you’re dancing, they also happen fireside while imbibing some adult beverages after a day on the slopes. (Sorry for White Christmas reference, but Hallmark’s Christmas in July is, after all, only eleven days away.)

While Sunset Schmoulevard represents Trossbach’s parodywriting debut, she previously wrote two others, a spoof of Psycho and another of The Birds. In fact, Trossbach had cast and was getting ready to take The Birds into production last March when the pandemic forced Lab and theaters around the world to close their doors. (She plans to resurrect that script next season when it is safer to assemble a larger cast and include sequences that involve audience interaction.)

While Trossbach is proud of many aspects of Sunset Schmoulevard, she’s especially delighted with the way the cast and audiences have embraced the show’s use of Atlantic Standard Dialect. She is also fond of the music.

“I had a great time choosing the music for Botticelli, and for this one I pulled music from film noir classics and you’ll hear a few of them throughout,” Annette relates. “Not only is the music good for the transitions, but the drama of the music lifts all the work that the actors are doing as well.”

Trossbach added on more feature to her parody.

“I love Monty Python and adore the credits for the Quest for the Holy Grail,” she explains. “At the beginning, they run credits. There are subtitles and things go nuts. So new subtitles appear. They apologize for the previous subtitles and report that the people responsible for them have been sacked. The new subtitles are done in Swedish in the style of a Norse tragedy and they also go horribly wrong. So new subtitles come on saying that those who sacked the previous writers have also been sacked and here are your new subtitles. I loved the idea of having this extra voice commenting on the action like the conscience of the play.”

You’ll see these supertitles projected above the proscenium throughout Sunset Schmoulevard … a parody of the parody so to speak.

In the final analysis, Sunset Schmoulevard is great entertainment. Whether you’ve seen Sunset Boulevard or not, the show is downright hilarious, and thanks to a group dynamic that’s been sorely missing in our lives this past fifteen months and has returned post-pandemic as if on steroids, you’ll be laughing from start to finish, and probably most of the way home. Some folks have literally fallen out of their seats during past performances.

You may too.

And if you don’t, there’s a good chance that Norma Desmond will slap the shit out of you. You might not find that too funny, but I promise that the rest of us will.

Sunset Schmoulevard runs through July 3.

June 20, 2021.

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