BEVERLY — To elevate a thoroughly mediocre musical like Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,’’ what’s needed is a transfixing, can’t-take-your-eyes-off-her lead performance like the one Glenn Close delivered on Broadway two years ago, reprising her star turn from a quarter-century earlier as faded silent-movie star Norma Desmond.
Alice Ripley certainly gives it her all as Norma in North Shore Music Theatre’s production of “Sunset Boulevard,’’ an adaptation of the 1950 Billy Wilder film classic that endures as perhaps the best Hollywood cautionary tale ever put onscreen. But Ripley’s fully committed portrayal is ultimately not enough to compensate for the deficiencies of Lloyd Webber’s score, the banality of the lyrics (by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the book), and the fact that Ripley’s particular gifts are a less-than-perfect match for the subpar material.
A Tony Award winner a decade ago for her portrayal of a bipolar woman desperately struggling to keep it together in “Next to Normal,’’ Ripley costarred with Close in the 1994 Broadway production of “Sunset Boulevard,’’ playing the young and idealistic studio script-reader Betty Schaefer. Ripley is undeniably capable of generating a narrow, laser-focused intensity that can at times rivet your attention: She’s always ready for her close-up in this “Sunset Boulevard,’’ which isdirected and choreographed by Kevin P. Hill and is set in Los Angeles in 1949-50.
Where Ripley is less persuasive, however, is in those crucial wide-angle moments when Norma has to both sweep across the stage and command it with a certain tragic grandeur, has to be simultaneously larger and crazier than life, and generally has to convince us that Norma speaks naught but the truth when she querulously declares to screenwriter Joe Gillis (Nicholas Rodriguez) that “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small.’’ Vocally, “Sunset Boulevard’’ sometimes strands Ripley outside her comfort zone, leaving her exposed, especially during solos such as “With One Look’’ and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.’’
While we’re on the subject of pictures: Scenic designer Kyle Dixon has covered the NSMT walls with 100 large, framed photos of Ripley-as-Norma, and added another 40 photos of her within her mansion. It is an ambitious and masterfully executed concept, especially considering this is a theater whose in-the-round configuration often limits productions to rudimentary sets. The effect of Dixon’s design is to suggest that Norma has not just created a shrine to her career and bygone glamour but is fatally imprisoned by her own image.
Joe Gillis, too, becomes a kind of prisoner to that image, and to Norma’s delusions, once he agrees to help her with her ludicrous screenplay and becomes her lover. That screenplay is for a film about Salome, the biblical temptress, in which the middle-aged Norma proposes to play teenage Salome — a project she is certain Cecil B. DeMille (Neal Mayer) will be eager to direct. Like Norma herself, that assumption is both arrogant and pitiable. It’s not an assumption that either Joe or Norma’s ultra-protective manservant and ex-husband Max von Mayerling (William Michals) is eager to dispel.
As Joe, Rodriguez sings superbly and cuts a dashing figure — indeed, too dashing at the beginning of “Sunset Boulevard,’’ when the ostensibly struggling screenwriter is attired (by costume designer Kelly Baker) in an implausibly expensive suit. We’re meant to believe that Joe’s money problems are so severe he’s on the run from two guys trying to repossess his car, and that he allows himself to be drawn into Norma’s controlling clutches because of her wealth and largesse. Indeed, an entire number (“The Lady’s Paying’’) is built around the wardrobe makeover Joe enjoys at Norma’s expense. But the notion that Joe is selling his soul for material comforts is undermined when from the start he looks as if he just stepped off the cover of GQ magazine.
It’s an atypical misstep in director Hill’s carefully considered and imaginatively rendered production, which deploys a Joe Gillis double (played by Domenic Servidio) who often lurks on the periphery of the action or strides across the stage, sometimes locking eyes with Joe in an accusatory manner. Acting more overtly as Joe’s conscience is Betty Schaefer (a warmly appealing Lizzie Klemperer), who cajoles him into collaborating on a screenplay of considerably more literary merit than “Salome.’’ When the pair fall for each other — a high point of the NSMT production is Rodriguez and Klemperer’s duet on “Too Much in Love to Care’’ — Norma responds with predictable wrath. Suddenly, Joe has a fateful choice to make.
Yet that choice carries less weight than it should because so much of “Sunset Boulevard’’ feels secondhand, from Lloyd Webber’s forgettable score to the script by Black and Hampton, which borrows copiously from the screenplay co-written by Wilder for the film but lacks its cynical bite and harrowing force. In Act One and then again in an Act Two reprise, the song “New Ways to Dream’’ gets a heavy workout, words that carry an implicit promise. But “Sunset Boulevard’’ ultimately does not give audiences enough new ways to see (or hear) this well-known story of self-deceit and self-destruction.
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Based on the Billy Wilder film. Presented by North Shore Music Theatre, Beverly, through Oct. 6. Tickets $61-$86, 978-232-7200, www.nsmt.orgDon Aucoin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.