The Norma Conquests Premieres at the Ice House

Sep 13, 2023 | 2023 Articles, Theatre

by Velva Lynn Hampson

Details at the end of this article on how to get a ticket discount for the show!

The Visalia Players at the Ice House Theater are presenting the world premiere of The Norma Conquests, by Los Angeles playwright Rom Watson. As the Assistant Director for the production, I am thrilled that we have the opportunity to share this wildly entertaining comedy with the community. Running September 15-October 1, 2023, this play is a parody sequel to Billy Wilder’s 1950 noir classic, Sunset Boulevard, following the continuing adventures of silent movie diva, Norma Desmond.

In 1950, Norma Desmond, former actress and the greatest star of the silent movies of the 20s, shot her lover, screenwriter Joe Gillis, when he tried to leave her. But what happened next? The Norma Conquests takes up her story 16 years after her murder conviction. Norma has been given the chance to participate in a prison work release program, which gives her the ability to leave the prison each day for a few hours. If she can keep a job, she can gain an early parole. But reintegrating into society as a working woman is proving more difficult than Norma thought.

Christa Reiber as Norma Desmond

Director Hugh Munro Neely and I have so enjoyed working with Christa Reiber, who plays the title role of Norma Desmond. You might remember her from the Visalia Players productions of A Christmas Story, Legally Blonde (as fitness guru Brooke Wyndam) and Sweeney Todd (as the Beggar Woman and the understudy for Mrs. Lovett). “I think it is really cool playing such an iconic role, but in a more comedic setting. I haven’t gotten to play a comedic role in a while.” Christa adds that it is fun to be with the character as she evolves and grows “ever so slightly less egocentric.”

Christa’s favorite part is realizing that Max von Mayerling, ex-husband and manservant extraordinaire, has stayed with Norma through all of her highs and lows. Jack Patiño, who was last seen on the Ice House stage as Teddy in Arsenic and Old Lace, takes on the role of the taciturn manservant who will do anything for the woman he loves. Patiño really likes that “there are a lot of Easter eggs for those who have watched the movie and a lot of fun bits for those who haven’t seen the movie.” Max is a totally different character than Patiño has ever played. “It’s very much a stretch” of his acting skills, and Hugh and I are so impressed with his performance and work ethic.

Max and Norma encounter a variety of people who are either fictionalized versions of known Hollywood denizens from 1967 or new characters, including one visit from an unexpected nemesis from the original movie. This versatile ensemble cast takes on one, two, and even three roles depending on the needs of the script.

Phae Elfont, a relative newcomer to Visalia, was first seen in Sweeney Todd as Mrs. Lovett. They took on a role in The Norma Conquests because “I love straight plays, and after a very challenging musical, a comedy play sounded like a wonderful time.” When asked who would enjoy this show, they replied, “While I think it will appeal to people who are familiar with older films, I believe everyone will find something to enjoy, especially since we have such a hysterical cast.”

Several of our actors are relishing the chance to play real people. “I’ve always loved classic Hollywood films. My background is in film, so getting to portray a Hollywood star along with other people playing Hollywood stars is a lot of fun,” said Alexander “Mal” Mallory, who is making his stage debut with this show. Ava Hoskins, a senior at El Diamante who was in the ensemble of Sweeney Todd, likes that she “has lore to my character. It makes her interesting.”

You might recognize Mike Pesto from the Visalia Players productions Backwards Broadway and Sweeney Todd, but you might also know his voice from listening to My 97.5 on your morning commute. He is playing three roles in The Norma Conquests, and this is the first time he has played characters who represent real people. “I’ve had great fun researching all three people with varying degrees of success.” Mike first saw Sunset Boulevard several weeks into the rehearsal process, so what he initially thought was funny gained new layers of meaning and became even funnier. Mike says, “My recommendation is that you watch the movie, come see the show opening weekend, watch the movie again, and then come see us the second weekend.”

My favorite part of assistant directing The Norma Conquests has been watching this incredible group of actors build their characters and watching this show take form for the first time. It also really appeals to my middle and high school obsession with silent and Pre-Code movies.

It has been an absolute joy serving as Hugh’s Assistant Director. You might know director Hugh Munro Neely for his work with the Kings Players (directing The Dining Room and Angel Street) and the Visalia Players (music directing Legally Blonde, where he played the evil Professor Callahan, and Sweeney Todd). Prior to moving to Hanford five years ago, he directed at the Palmdale Playhouse and the Santa Monica Theatre Guild.

When I asked him why he chose The Norma Conquests, he replied, “I met Rom Watson over a decade ago as an actor in Santa Monica, and he showed me some plays he’d been working on. When I read The Norma Conquests, I loved it and asked if I could direct the premiere production. For some years, I was unable to find a theater company that would take a chance on a new play, and I’m so happy that the Visalia Players are willing to take up that challenge.” He goes on to say, “The play is very clever and terrifically funny and will thoroughly entertain the audience, whether or not they have seen Sunset Boulevard.”

We’re also fortunate that the playwright, Rom Watson, will be here for opening weekend. He will attend the performances on September 15, 16, and 17, and he will also be at the theater after the matinee on Sunday the 17th for a question-and-answer session moderated by Donald Munro.

SPECIAL DISCOUNT: Go to the Visalia Players website and use the code “desmond241” to get two tickets to The Norma Conquests for the price of one. We can’t wait to welcome you to Norma’s world in 1967 Hollywood!

Check out more local entertainment articles in our Arts & Entertainment section. And don’t miss out on Mysteryrat’s Maze Podcast where we feature mystery stories read by local actors!


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.