Sunset Boulevard continues at the Palace Theatre, New York until 25 June.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
In her latest incarnation, Norma Desmond is totally heart-breaking.
The narcissistic ferocity of the queen of silent movies has been softened. Her eccentricities are at times almost endearing rather than frightening.
She can be haughty and short-tempered, to be sure, but also evident is the glow of the vibrant young woman that once captivated movie audiences before talkies were invented, a glow showing both the patina and rot of inexorable time.
Coming back to Broadway in a role that won her acclaim more than two decades ago, Glenn Close in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard is delivering a complex portrait that is as tender as it is thrilling.
Close has said in interviews that the years have deepened both her craft and understanding of the role, and this, along with the scaled-down grandeur and melodramatic fervour of director Lonny Price’s imaginative production, makes this revival an event of the first magnitude.
The production was developed last year in London by English National Opera, and accompanying Close to New York are her three British co-stars, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon and Fred Johanson, all three enjoying noteworthy Broadway debuts.
Furthermore, Lloyd Webber’s score soars to formidable heights with a 40-piece orchestra prominently placed on stage, heightening both the show’s shifting moods and musicality, under the baton of musical supervisor Kristen Blodgette.
Both the strengths and weaknesses of the show are on view, but when things are right, as they mostly are, it is overpowering.
Some of the plot turns creak a bit mechanically. For the most part, however, the book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton make a suitable translation to musical theatre terms of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir classic, detailing the fatal relationship between a jobless Hollywood writer and the forgotten silent star who hires to him to rework a screenplay she has written in hopes of a comeback.
The story is told through the point of view of the writer, Joe Gillis, played by Xavier. He makes a terrifically engaging narrator, carrying us through the sometimes relentless doggerel of the expository lyrics with exceptional clarity as well as an impeccable American accent. (The sound design by Mick Potter may well deserve credit for the overall lucidity of both lyrics and dialogue.)
Johanson brings both mystery and dignity to the role of Desmond’s dedicated butler, and Dillon is suitably earnest and fetching as the movie studio assistant who becomes the love of Gillis’ abbreviated life. Her duet with Xavier, ‘Too Much in Love to Care’, is one of the show’s musical highlights.
Among the Broadway stalwarts in the cast, Paul Schoeffler is a sympathetic Cecil B. DeMille, Andy Taylor makes an appropriately obnoxious studio executive, and Jim Walton romps through the role of the clothier Desmond hires to dress up Gillis.
But, of course, it is Close who is the show’s centrepiece and the production’s raison d’être. (At the performance attended, Close’s entrance applause almost matched the extended hand and cheers given Hillary Clinton when she showed up in the audience. Moreover, the show, originally scheduled to close 28 May has been extended until 25 June.)
And this consummate actress is giving it her all. The singing gets a trifle wobbly when the high notes turn up in one of her arias, ‘With One Look’, but it’s more than overcome by truthfulness of delivery.
And with Act II’s piece de resistance and ode to old-time movie-making, ‘As if We Never Said Goodbye’ – there’s perhaps no better way to say it – Close truly has the audience in the palm of her hand.
There are non-singing moments that are equally telling: Desmond’s convulsive crying jag when she thinks Gillis is leaving her; her hapless pantomime as she enacts the role of Salome; and her final entrance at the top of her mansion’s stairway.
Yes, the stairway is emphatically there in James Noone’s smart set design, if not as ornate as in the original production, and even though her outlandish Salome costume drew some audience titters, Close quickly silenced them with her heart-rending depiction of a woman lost in a fog of delusion and frightened confusion.
Wherever Sunset Boulevard may finally rank in the works of Lloyd Webber (the composer now has four shows playing on Broadway), there’s no doubt that this time around, the address makes for an essential theatrical destination.
Readers may also be interested in:
Andrew Lloyd Webber celebrates four musicals on Broadway – News
Sunset Boulevard – Glenn Close on making her West End debut at ENO – Interview