APART FROM ITS EXISTENCE, there's really nothing wrong with Portland Center Stage's production of Sunset Boulevard.
The fact that it exists, though... it's kind of a sticking point.
Billy Wilder's 1950 film is a movie about movies, about the corrosive effects of fame and the contrast between the magic of movies and the tawdry realities of Hollywood. It is a film that is perfect as a film. Period. Its story cannot be effectively told in any other medium, and why should it be? Why represent a close-up with anything other than a close-up? Sunset Boulevard does not need to exist in theatrical form, and it certainly doesn't need to be a musical. Joe Gillis (Kevin Reed) jazz-handsing his way across stage, singing "Sunset Boule-vard, lethal boule-vard"—not only has it been stuck in my head for four days, but it's flat-out goofy.
PCS' staging is uncharacteristically modest for a season opener—there's no turntable set, no mansion in miniature. There is a grandiose staircase, of course, for aging movie star Norma Desmond (Linda Mugleston) to make dramatic entrances, and a video screen on which pre-recorded footage fills in some of the difficult-to-stage bits in the tale of Norma's love affair with opportunistic screenwriter Joe Gillis. A close-up image of a woman's face serves as a backdrop—static and lifeless, it too misses the point, though Robert Wierzel's lighting design makes a valiant bid for dynamism.
It's possible that a truly virtuosic performance from Mugleston could've saved this production—reportedly, Glenn Close's turn as Norma Desmond on Broadway was outstanding. Mugleston doesn't pull it off, but it's unfair to pin the failures of this production on anyone other than composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton. If I hadn't been familiar with the movie, the musical would've made no sense whatsoever. The relationship between Joe and the fetching screenwriter Betty Shaefer (Sarah Stevens) is completely unearned—a slavish attention to narrative exactitude ignores the fact that some scenes don't work without a close-up. And seriously, Portland, what was with the collective gasp of surprise when Norma shot Joe? (Oh: Spoiler!) Did you really not know that was coming? Stay home. Rent a movie. Here's a thought: Rent Sunset Boulevard.