Singing cats cavort about the stage, a biblical Joseph twirls around in a colorful coat, and a masked phantom pines away on his organ. Must be Andrew Lloyd Webber time.
But this time, it's an aging movie queen skulking around her dusty Hollywood mansion, awaiting her next Cecil B. DeMille closeup. Throw in a dead pet monkey, an overly devoted butler/chauffeur and a down-on-his luck writer -- and you have "Sunset Boulevard."
"The show is very much in the spirit of film noir, it's dark and cynical," said Justin Ivie, a Weber State University graduate. Ivie is understudying the role of said butler, Max von Mayerling, in Pioneer Theatre Company's production of "Sunset Boulevard," opening tonight in Salt Lake City.
The 1993 musical is based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film noir masterpiece, which starred Gloria Swanson as the turbaned Norma Desmond and William Holden as Joe, the jaded writer turned gigolo who gets caught up in Desmond's tailspinning delusion.
"It takes place in this glitzy, glamorous world of Hollywood, but what you are constantly shown is that all of that is a veneer and a facade," Ivie said. "Behind it, everyone is broken and just trying to scratch and scrape their way to the top."
The story unfolds through Joe's eyes as he stumbles into Desmond's world, Ivie explained. A funeral for Norma's pet monkey should have been his first clue that all was not well at the Sunset Boulevard mansion, but times are desperate for poor Joe.
"He is very jaded and world-weary. He's a Hollywood writer who has seen the underbelly," Ivie said. "He has lost his idealism and started to realize that he is not going to be famous and it is really a dirty business where you have to call in a lot of favors and play politics."
Joe may never be famous, but silent-screen legend Desmond once was -- and still is famous, at least in her own mind.
"I am big, it's the pictures that got small," Norma proclaims upon first meeting Joe, who decides hiding out in Norma's mansion may not be such a bad idea. Turns out, he is dead wrong, as Norma quickly gets all clingy and demanding. Her world is being carefully managed by Max, who Ivie said acts out of devotion and a deep love for Norma -- making Max the "ultimate enabler."
"He does everything to support her life and in fact goes far beyond the call of duty for an ordinary servant," Ivie said. "He has sacrificed everything in his own life in order to maintain this dream for Norma that she is a gigantic star and has millions of fans, when in fact she is mostly a forgotten has-been. He does everything to protect her from that knowledge."
Ivie isn't the only WSU graduate involved in PTC's production of Webber's lavish musical. The ensemble also includes Ginger Bess, Daniel T. Simons, Teresa Bramwell, Elise Groves, and Carrianne H. Jones, who is understudying the role of Betty Schaefer.
Betty is a young, aspiring writer, Jones explained, and Joe's real romantic interest in the story.
"Over the course of the story, they start spending a lot of time together and fall in love, accidentally," Jones said. But Betty is Joe's best friend's girl, which makes things sort of awkward.
"Joe ends, up in a way, sacrificing himself at the end to send her away," Jones said. "It's very painful the way he sends her away, but he is trying to do it for her own good."
Top of Utah theatergoers may remember Jones, 27, as Mary Lennox in WSU's production of "The Secret Garden." She also appeared in "Celebration" and "The Utter Glory of Morrissey Hall" at the university. Ivie, 39, appeared in WSU's original, festival-winning production of "The Pirated Penzance" and as the demon barber in the university's "Sweeney Todd."
Both Jones and Ivie credit WSU's theater program and its director, Jim Christian, for their ability and success in pursuing careers on the stage.
"Weber State has provided PTC with their choruses for a decade or two now," Ivie said. "It's a company that has been dependent on the great students that come out of the musical theater program there at Weber State."
Following this production, Jones is heading to New York City to pursue her acting dream; Ivie has made his living as an actor for several years now. Although it has its challenges -- like not always knowing where his next paycheck is coming from -- Ivie said he wouldn't have it any other way.
"I get to do what I love," Ivie said. "There is an old saying that the worst day in the theater is better than the best day at the bank."
Spotlight on Norma Desmond
In PTC's "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Desmond is played by New York City actress Lynne Wintersteller, who last appeared on PTC's stage in 2008 as the mother, Margaret Johnson, in "The Light in the Piazza." Jones and Ivie both praised her talents and said Utah theatergoers are in for a rare treat.
"I think people will have a really great night out at the theater and it's going to look wonderful," Ivie said. " Lynne Wintersteller is amazing and not to be missed."
"She is so down to earth, easy to work with and so incredibly talented," Jones added, noting the actress is nothing offstage like the crazed Norma Desmond. "That's only when she is officially 'on' and in the moment."
The production is huge and lush, with period costumes and wigs, masses of scenery and motorized movement including a vintage car, according to the actors.
"It's full of all kinds of spectacle, but at the heart of it all, it's about simple human needs and how hard it is to maintain expectations in the view of a harsh reality," Ivie said.
Then, of course, there is the score, written by one of the most successful musical theater composers of the 20th century.
"It's got some gorgeous orchestrations," Ivie said. "It's this really jazzy 1940s- and '50s-sounding score that people will really fall in love with."
However, Webber also throws in some particularly difficult rythms, dissonant harmonies and jarring lyrical moments that should leave the audience feeling a bit unbalanced, which is precisely what Webber intended given the nature of the story.
"If you are an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan, you are going to love this," Jones said.