SUNSET BOULEVARD (Media Theatre): Ann Crumb as Norma Desmond, the delusional diva

Sunset Blvd PosterWhen she arrives on the stage, audiences no longer restrain themselves, and with their applause, drown out the orchestra, making it difficult for the musicians to continue.  At the end of the show, even her colleagues bow and beam with delight that the diva of SUNSET BOULEVARD has graced the stage.  Immediately, the entire audience jumps up, shouting “Brava!”

The impact that Ann Crumb, the Broadway star who performs around the world, has on the audience is such that even at opening night receptions, she has to run a gauntlet of admiration, mobbed by fans who shower her with praise, seeking, at least at a subconscious level, the blessings of the famous musical icon. Modest and unassuming as she is, her patience with her devotees prevents her from drinking a glass of wine and even eating a crumb, until most food is gone.

Such is the reality of the life of a modern diva, who puts the comfort of people above her own—a rare characteristic in the long history of divas on the stage of theaters and opera houses, and on the silver screens in Hollywood.

Ancient and modern divas

Divas, those mighty creatures whom theatergoers today look at in awe, came out of ancient history.  They first appeared in some of the world’s most ancient literary documents, the Hindu Vedas, the oldest of which came into being about 3,500 years ago.

In Sanskrit, “devas” are influential female deities with benevolent, supernatural strength.  Mortals tried to obtain blessings by pleasing those celestial beings.  “Deva” eventually became “diva,” a goddess on stage or on the screen, a prima donna, a celebrated female star who dominates the cultural scene.

From film to musical

Hollywood knows how to make and break divas and stars, and how to use everything and everybody from classical Greek drama and Shakespeare to contemporary works.  While many films owe their existence to plays, SUNSET BOULEVARD traveled in the opposite direction: a modern musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, composed in the early 1990s, is an adaptation of the Academy Award-winning 1950 film noir by Billy Wilder.

The Austrian-born Jewish filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer moved to Berlin, then, after the rise of the Nazi Party, to Paris.  He left Europe in 1933, and settled in Hollywood, where, in 1950, he created the famous SUNSET BOULEVARD.  In the early 1970s, Webber saw Wilder’s classic, which inspired “the most commercially successful composer in history” (New York Times),to turn it into a musical.

Both the film and the musical were named after the boulevard that runs through Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, the location of the first film studio in 1911, a place, where, to this day, film moguls rule ruthlessly.

Inside the mansion on Sunset Blvd.

Norma Desmond (Ann Crumb) seducing Joe Gillis (Sean Thompson).  Photo by Mark Jordan.

Norma Desmond (Ann Crumb) seducing Joe Gillis (Sean Thompson). Photo by Mark Jordan.

The musical, like the film, begins with a body floating dead in a swimming pool, and ends with the demented, decrescent film star, about to be arrested for the murder of a young writer, Joe Gillis (played with great aplomb by Sean Thompson), whom she had shot.

Believing that the men with cameras surrounding her are studio grips and gaffers, she gives her final speech, delivered in a fantastic, grotesque voice—one of the most dramatic scenes, with live cameras rolling, allowing the audience to watch the delirious dying swan in two versions:

Ann Crumb’s Norma Desmond swirling around in her glamorous, black and blue dress, looking like wings, as if to take off on her last flight, and her face, in black and white, supersized on a gigantic screen—a scene that brought together a whole lifetime in just a few seconds, blending heaven and hell, when she announces triumphantly, “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

The musical at the Media Theatre, directed with great sensitivity by artistic director Jesse Cline, like the film, hit a raw nerve with the audience.  Crumb, a totally depowered, female King Lear, dominated every scene in her own dream castle.

She had nobody there for her on her way to delusion and decay, except Max—her butler, ex-husband, and former director, who now goes all out to protect her from intrusions of the outside world that could shatter the thin glass of her fantasy.  Looking like Orson Wells in his senior prime, Nicholas F. Saverine played this role so convincingly that I thought the Media Theatre had reverted back into the popular cinema playing Hollywood films on State Street.

The elegant, but fading and reclusive screen queen desperately clung on to her past by attempting to seduce the handsome young writer who couldn’t make it in Hollywood, hoping that he would fix her Salome script, unaware of how poorly written it was.  Given his own financial and professional plight, Joe played along, basking in the benefits of leading a well-paid, leisurely life.

In one scene, the gigolo with literary skills saunters onto the stage, wearing nothing but tight short shorts and a loose shirt over his bare chest, strutting his stuff as if posing for a beefcake pinup photo session, making the audience both gasp and giggle.  Even at the reception afterwards, audience members were talking about the best legs they’d seen on any man.

Even though the script did not give Joe, who also acted as a part-time narrator, as many scenes as hard-hitting as those of the seductive Norma, Sean Thomson stood his ground as both a victim and a manipulator.  We saw him waver between the privileges he experienced when going to bed with the phantom of a once paramount movie star versus a slow simmering, crock-pottish relationship with Betty, the Hollywood secretary, played with great maturity by Elisa Matthews.  The magnificent voices of these musical stars, engaged in a complex triangular relationship, led to spontaneous applause from the audience.

Life outside the lonely mansion

The singers and dancers kept the show going at a fast and entertaining pace, dazzlingly choreographed by Dann Dunn, who created memorable scenes that enhanced the melodramatic environment without turning the characters into caricatures.  His ensemble of singers and dancers contributed greatly to the success of this production, including Patrick Ludt, Sean O’Shea, Mark Collmer, Aaron Atkinson, Jarrett Smith, Geoff Bruen, Kelly Briggs, Lauren Cupples, Jacqueline Elyse Rosenthal, and Michelle Siracusa.

If I could single out only three of the terrific ensemble artists who stood out the most for me, it would be Brian Michael Henry’s voice, which electrified the theatre, JP Dunphy, the multi-talented young dance master, and Anne Connors, one of the liveliest dancers and singers for miles.

Both the leading characters and the entire ensemble looked fantastic. Millie Hiibel not only created elegant outfits for the males, but some of the most exquisite, over-the-top costumes for the diva of the show.

The orchestra, under music director Scott Anthony, did great justice to the score by Baron Webber—whom Queen Elizabeth II had knighted for his contributions as one of the greatest composers of musicals in our time.  The entire cast took time out to applaud the Media musicians at the end of the show.

Hollywood flickers on the Media Theatre’s screen

Mathew Miller, Temple University’s famous scenic designer, outdid himself in creating a classical arch on top of the stage with a gigantic image of the old mansion covering the back screen, showing the permanence of decay. Elegant, large mobile panels, sliding sideways across the stage, indicated the changing times. Troy Martin O’Shia’s lighting accompanied the ever shifting fortunes of the characters, especially the tragic heroine who desperately wanted to reconnect with her past.

Images and films of a long-gone era, based on the research of Robert White, became an important part of the scenic design, strongly enhancing Jesse Cline’s vision of the Sunset Boulevard as a tragic romance.

Ann Crumb, the amazing diva

Aware of Crumb’s enormous musical and dramatic talents, Cameron Mackintosh, “widely considered to be the most successful theatrical producer of all-time” (Best of Theatre), and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the world’s most popular composer of musicals, chose Crumb, a Tony-nominated actress, to play the starring role of Rose Vibert in Webber’s Aspects of Love, which she originated in both London and on Broadway.

Ann Crumb, dressed like an exotic bird, ready to take off in her final scene in Sunset Boulevard at the Media Theatre. Photo by Mark Jordan.

Ann Crumb, dressed like an exotic bird, ready to take off in her final scene in SUNSET BOULEVARD at the Media Theatre. Photo by Mark Jordan.

Few singers can do what Ann Crumb can do, namely to transform herself in such versatile ways that people follow her wherever she goes, whether she performs on Broadway or in Media.  She stunned audiences as Maria Callas in Master Class, portraying her as an aging, world-star soprano, the prima donna of prima donnas, once on stage in the greatest opera houses around the world, now reduced to teaching voice.

Ann, the extraordinarily musical theater artist, daughter of composer George Crumb, can also transform herself into the exact opposite, like Florence Foster Jenkins in Souvenir: a wealthy, but naïve, untalented singer, whose every note throughout the entire performance hurt the ear—a tragic figure who had the audience roar with laughter and then well up with tears of sadness.  Crumb played both roles magnificently, thanks to her astonishingly wide vocal and dramatic range.

Ann Crumb, the mensch and female Francis of Assisi

Yet few people know about Crumb’s life off stage.  For example, as a speech and language pathologist, Crumb has spent years doing hospital and clinical work, helping infants and young children who were facing severe developmental delays.  To this day, she greatly enjoys narrating fables and tales in concerts for children.

Just as some “devas” in Hindu mythology represent the forces of nature and moral values, so Crumb encourages people to rescue and adopt abandoned dogs.  Through The Rescue Express, which she cofounded, she has rescued over 800 dogs and pups during the last four years from high-kill gas chamber and heart-stick facilities.

The demigoddess and prima donna on stage, in reality is a very down to earth human being, so aware of the suffering of others that she is devoting every moment away from the stage to the welfare of children and animals.  Without making any fuss about her good deeds, Ann Crumb has become a kind of female Francis of Assisi—a diva in the best sense of the word. [Media Theatre, 104 East State Street. Media, Pa.] April 16-May 18, 2014, mediatheatre.org.

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About the author

Henrik Eger

HENRIK EGER, editor of Drama Around the Globe. Bilingual playwright, author of Metronome Ticking. Born and raised in Germany. Ph.D. in English, University of Illinois, Chicago. German translator of Martin Luther King, Jr’s Nobel Peace Prize mail. Producer-director: Multilingual Shakespeare, London. Retired professor of English and Communication who taught in six countries on three continents, including four universities and one college in the U.S. Author of four college text books. Longtime Philadelphia theatre correspondent for AAJT, the world’s largest Jewish theatre website. Articles published in Classical Voice, Los Angeles; Kayhan International, Tehran, Iran; Indian Express, Mumbai, India; The Jewish Forward, New York; Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Phindie, and Broad Street Review, Philadelphia; The Mennonite, Tucson; and New Jersey Stage. Contact: HenrikEger@gmail.com