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The song “As If We Never Said Goodbye” takes on touching new resonance in the Broadway revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical Sunset Boulevard, based on the classic Billy Wilder film. This version once again stars Glenn Close in the role that won her a Tony Award 22 years ago, and the veteran actress reprises it magnificently. Playing Norma Desmond, the aging former movie star obsessed with making a comeback, Close delivers a more subtle, nuanced performance well suited to a production dramatically scaled down from the original.
Resembling the semi-staged musicals regularly seen at NYC’s Encores, this rendition, first presented last year at London’s English National Opera, marked Close’s West End debut and garnered her an Evening Standard Award. Eschewing John Napier’s original lavish sets, notably Desmond’s palatial, run-down mansion, the production is dominated by metal staircases and catwalks, large chandeliers dangling precariously askew and video projections of vintage Hollywood scenes. Mark Henderson’s shadowy lighting infuses the proceedings with a suitably gothic feel.
Compensating for the relatively skimpy production values is a 40-piece orchestra situated not in the pit, but rather at the very center of the Palace Theatre stage. It is being advertised as the largest on Broadway in 80 years. I’ll leave it to the fact-checkers to verify that claim, but will say this: The lush orchestrations do ample justice to the beauty of Lloyd Webber’s score, which includes the aforementioned “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “With One Look,” two songs that went on to become standards. The book by Christopher Hampton and Don Black is largely faithful to the film, although its lack of nuance sometimes gives the musical an excessively campy feel that thankfully is now lessened.
The 69-year-old Close reveals some vocal strain in the soaring numbers. But she nonetheless puts them over in stirring fashion, using her impeccable dramatic skills to compensate for any missed notes. This time around, her Norma seems more fragile, more vulnerable, which makes the character’s eventual descent into madness all the more touching. Which is not to say she doesn’t entirely neglect the Grand Guignol aspects, most notably in her final scene in which she declaims, “I’m ready for my close-up!”
Throughout, Close wears the wonderful original costumes designed by Anthony Powell (she apparently had the foresight to hang on to them, even if they did require alterations). And despite the passage of more than two decades, she somehow seems younger at times, especially when Norma displays a giggly passion for the lover many years her junior.
Reprising their roles from the London production are three Broadway newcomers in the major supporting parts. As Joe Gillis, the financially desperate screenwriter enticed by Norma to collaborate on her imaginary comeback, Michael Xavier may not exude charisma, but he does display a powerful singing voice and chiseled body. Siobhan Dillon makes for an appealing Betty, Joe’s burgeoning romantic interest, and Fred Johanson is physically and vocally imposing as Max, the protective manservant with whom Norma shares a hidden past.
Lonny Price, who previously directed semi-staged versions of Sweeney Todd and Company at Lincoln Center, does an effective job here, although such touches as black-clad actors running around waving flashlights simulating car headlights, or a mannequin representing Joe’s lifeless body literally hanging over the stage, seem slightly cheesy.
Ultimately, it’s Close’s return that is this revival’s reason for being, and the rapturous audience reaction makes it clear that despite the plethora of talented actresses who have starred in the musical before and since — Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Diahann Carroll and Elaine Page, among them — she owns the role. Now all we need is a film adaptation before she ages out of the part.
Venue: Palace Theatre, New York
Cast: Glenn Close, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson, Preston Truman Boyd, Paul Schoeffler, Andy Taylor, Jim Walton
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics: Don Black, Christopher Hampton
Director: Lonny Price
Set designer: James Noone
Costume designer: Tracy Christensen
Lighting designer: Mark Henderson
Sound designer: Mick Potter
Orchestrations: David Cullen, Andrew Lloyd Webber
Choreographer: Stephen Mear
Production: English National Opera
Presented by Paul Blake & Mike Bosner, Michael Linnit, Michael Grade, Jeffrey A. Sine, Richard A. Smith, Gate Ventures, James L. Nederlander, Stewart Lane/Bonnie Comley, AC Orange Entertainment, Terry Schunuck, Len Blavatnik, Daryl Roth, Shorenstein Hays-Nederlander, Matthew C. Blank, Tim Hogue/Walter Schmidt, 42nd Club/Marc Levine, by arrangement with The Really Useful Group
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