'Sunset Boulevard': Theater Review

Courtesy of Richard Hubert Smith
Michael Xavier and Glenn Close in 'Sunset Boulevard'
Glenn Close is still big, the production just got smaller.
5/7/2016

Glenn Close makes her belated West End stage debut, reprising her 1995 Tony-winning role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Hollywood noir musical based on the Billy Wilder film.

Billy Wilder once described Norma Desmond, the faded Hollywood diva at the heart of Sunset Boulevard, as a "dethroned queen" in a grand opera. So it feels fitting that Glenn Close should make her belated West End debut by revisiting her most feted stage triumph at the home of English National Opera, the Coliseum. Director Lonny Price's new production, a limited run of 43 performances over five weeks, returns the 69-year-old Close to the starring role that won her awards and acclaim in both Los Angeles and New York in the 1990s.

Adapted from Wilder's classic 1950 film, Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1993 musical has a bumpy track record of selling out theaters while still losing money due to its ruinously expensive stage sets. This pared-down, semi-staged revival is aiming to reverse that trend as well as plugging a big funding gap for the financially troubled ENO. Although it features a 48-piece orchestra, Price's production mostly keeps things functional and minimal, relying a little too heavily on his star to deliver the dramatic fireworks. In fairness, Close rises to the challenge, and her marquee appeal has already generated robust pre-sales for this short run.

A grimly funny horror yarn at heart, the plot to Sunset Boulevard almost feels like an early blueprint for Stephen King's Misery. When luckless hack screenwriter Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) stumbles across the crumbling Hollywood mansion belonging to aging silent movie queen Norma, both see opportunity knocking. He urgently needs money, while she desperately craves love and validation. Soon a deluded scheme to revive her career turns into a dysfunctional romance. But the mentally fragile Norma's delusions about her enduring star power cannot survive without the white lies of her devoted manservant Max (Fred Johanson). Eventually, her passive-aggressive hold over Joe curdles into a fatal attraction.

Sex, murder, glamor, madness and the Faustian price of fame: Sunset Boulevard offers rich potential for dramatists. But despite the blank-slate options afforded by a minimalist production, Price takes disappointingly few stylistic risks. The clothes, hairstyles and intermittent snippets of back-projected footage remain firmly rooted in late 1940s Hollywood. James Noone’s stage design also looks clumsy and cluttered, its criss-crossing stairways and gantries standing in for various locations, with the orchestra huddled beneath in full view.

Fortunately, Close gives great diva in a fabulous succession of sequin-studded, fur-lined, zebra-striped outfits. She sports a more pronounced English accent than her previous incarnation as Norma, while dialing down the Grand Guignol mania in her final torrid meltdown scene. The overall effect is a weapons-grade drag-queen blend of Cruella DeVil and Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. Crucially, she makes sure Norma is no mere gothic grotesque but a vulnerable older woman facing the horror of redundancy and invisibility in a male-dominated industry. There is tragic desperation behind her brittle bravado.

Close is not a technically great singer, but her piercing voice is forceful and commanding, raising the roof on her solo showcase numbers "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye." Xavier is a blander stage presence but a more confident vocalist, hitting his peak with the show's title track, which invokes some of the cheerfully sour wit of Jacques Brel in his impish prime. However, Sunset Boulevard also features too many of Lloyd Webber’s more workmanlike tunes, albeit in sumptuous full-orchestra arrangements. The veteran composer is often unfairly derided by critics, but even by his standards, this show feels weighed down with syrupy bombast and flat-footed motifs.

The book, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, leaves no Hollywood Babylon cliche unturned with its off-the-shelf gallery of back-stabbing agents, goonish heavies, wholesome young beauties and ruthless studio chiefs. Oddly, all of this actually feels more dated than Wilder’s film, which was written 50 years before, but contained far more nuance and irony. A more adventurous creative team might have found a way to tease out a little more moral ambiguity and contemporary subtext. But this is an underlying fault of the whole project, of course, not merely Price's production.

In any case, Sunset Boulevard remains a modern classic of Hollywood Noir folklore, however pedestrian the presentation. Lloyd Webber looks likely to have a hit revival on his hands, one which may even turn a profit this time. And Close is ready for her close-up once more, staging the kind of glorious comeback that Norma Desmond would envy.

Venue: Coliseum, London
Cast: Glenn Close, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson, Julian Forsyth, Mark Goldthorp
Director: Lonny Price
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and lyrics: Don Black, Christopher Hampton
Set designer: James Noone

Costume designer: Tracy Christensen
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Mick Potter
Conductor: Michael Reed
Choreographer: Stephen Meer
Presented by English National Opera Productions, in association with The GradeLinnit Company, by arrangement with The Really Useful Group

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