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The English National Opera production of
Sunset Boulevard

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - February 9, 2017

Sunset Boulevard Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton. Based on the Billy Wilder film. Directed by Lonny Price. Choreographed by Stephen Mear. Orchestrations, vocal and incidental music arrangements by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Set design by James Noone. Costume design by Tracy Christensen. Lighting design by Mark Henderson. Sound design by Mick Potter. Glenn Close original costume design by Anthony Powell. Glenn Close wig design by Andrew Simonin. Glenn Close makeup design by Charlotte Hayward. Wig, hair & makeup design by Dave Boya & J. Jared Janas. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet, Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Cast: Glenn Close, with Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson, Nancy Anderson, Mackenzie Bell, Preston Truman Boyd, Barry Busby, Britney Coleman, Julian R. Decker, Anissa Felix, Drew Foster, David Hess, Brittney Johnson, Katie Ladner, Stephanie Martignetti, Lauralyn McClelland, T. Oliver Reid, Lance Roberts, Stephanie Rothenberg, Graham Rowat, Paul Schoeffler, Andy Taylor, Sean Thompson, Matt Wall, Jim Walton.
Theatre: Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway between 46th and 47th Streets
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Glenn Close
Photo by Joan Marcus

Silent film star Norma Desmond learns the hard way that remaining a legend isn't easy, but in the revival of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Don Black-Christopher Hampton musical Sunset Boulevard that just opened at the Palace, Glenn Close makes it look effortless. If you didn't know it had been 22 years since she created the part on this side of the Atlantic, either because you saw her play it then (and win a Tony) or are still kicking yourself for missing it (I fall into the latter category), you'd swear that both she and Norma are frozen in time, a union of theatrical inevitability we're constantly told doesn't—and can't—happen today. But happen it does in this Lonny Price-directed production, so arrestingly and so frequently, that you'll be transported to a world and psychology that are once terrifying, rapturous, and seemingly impossible.

Close is every bit the Norma envisioned by Billy Wilder for his ultra-classic 1950 film of the same title (where she was played by Gloria Swanson by way of herself): glamorous, decaying, decrepit, forceful, and just a little bit crazy (at the outset, anyway). She evinces both the dusty glitter of ages past and an odd commitment to transforming the present to match it; she may still think she can get away with playing the 16-year-old Salome in a film of her own composition, but Close drenches even the deepest delusion in optimism, pulling you ever further into her fantasy. Before long, the "real world," as represented by Joe Gillis, the handsome young screenwriter who accidentally pulls into her driveway and cannot back out of her life again, comes to be as incorporeal to you as it is to her. There's only one way to see things. Norma's way.

This is why none of the character's ostensibly wackiest actions—holding a funeral for her pet chimpanzee, lording over a private New Year's Eve party, hiring an army of makeover artists to carve her into perfection for her cinematic return—elicit genuine laughter. Close ensures they all make sense for a woman who's this out of touch with contemporary society and the normal people in it, and she's so committed to each of these instances and more that you have to believe her. Instinctively, you know that Norma is descending more into madness with each passing scene, but when it's this reasonable, you don't notice until it's too late. That's how stars function: They don't bring you to them, they make you want to come to them.

Never is this more abundantly clear than in Norma's big second-act song, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," once she's stepped back onto the Paramount lot for the first time in decades. Taken on its own, it's a lovely little nostalgic-romantic piece all about fusing what was with what will or can be—"And this time will be bigger," she sings, "And brighter than we knew it / So watch me fly / We all know I / Can do it"—that to me has always seemed extraneous. But it's the anchor of Close's entire portrayal, the moment we understand there's no going back. Is it enveloping? Yes. But it's also chilling, as her glazed eyes reveal how she's already concocting new ways to bend others to her will and regain her long-faded glory by any means necessary.

Glenn Close and Michael Xavier
Photo by Joan Marcus

It's Close's second cheering-to-the-rafters showstopper, the first being "With One Look," in which Norma describes the power she can still exert over everyone she encounters. The songs work together flawlessly, setting up the thesis and then proving it, all the while Close bewitching you as surely as Norma does her cherished "people in the dark." It doesn't matter for a millisecond that Close, who was never a spectacular singer, has a more ragged edge to her vocals than she used to, or that there's a wider gap between her head and chest voices than once was the case. This is exactly how, and why, Norma would sing, and when you're in her presence, you won't find a thing lacking. This is everything a Broadway musical performance is supposed to be, and then some.

Whether Sunset Boulevard is everything a musical is supposed to be is another matter. It plays very well, though in most part because it follows Wilder's prescriptions (and dialogue) closely, though the movie is edgier and brighter, and more incisive in its condemnation of Hollywood's one-dimensionality. For all the dark, forboding sweep of Webber's noir-inspired melodies, many are repeated endlessly for dubious dramatic reasons, and are accompanied by plenty of awkward, surface-skimming Black-Hampton lyrics. And, for all it gets right (it's by far the tightest and most cohesive of Webber's later works), it doesn't add much to its source. Taken together, these issues present challenges for any director.

Price's attempts at taming this beast are valiant and largely successful. He's styled this production, which originated at the English National Opera last year, after his acclaimed New York Philharmonic and Ravinia concerts, with skeletal staging and design that allows him to focus more heavily on the music. Here, that takes the form of a breathtaking 40 musicians, conducted to perfection by Kristen Blodgette, that pummels to a bloody pulp the idiotic notion that there's no difference between a full-size orchestra and a tiny band. But his staging (and Stephen Mear's acceptable if undistinguished choreography) is firm and clever, swirling and sprawling without being showy, and plagued by only one minor misstep. (There is no need for a separate actress to play a Follies-like ghost of the younger Norma in several scenes.)

Michael Xavier with the ensemble
Photo by Joan Marcus

Even if James Noone's set, a fractured collection of disembodied sound-stage fixtures, scaffolds, and staircases can't begin to compare with John Napier's original sumptuous flying mansion design, it's a lot better and richer than you might expect. The same is true of Mark Henderson's lights and Tracy Christensen's costumes, the latter of which have been augmented by pieces for Close from Anthony Powell's 1994 plot of Technicolor turbans, wraps, and caftans, to delightfully disorienting effect. (Not only does Norma behave like she's in another universe, but she looks like it, too.) And the ensemble is superb, stuffed with Broadway talent that could carry any other show (among them: Paul Schoeffler as a starchy Cecil B. DeMille; Nancy Anderson, doing a variety of miniature headliner turns in a variety of tiny one- and two-line parts; and Jim Walton, a hoot as the smarmy men's shop owner who dresses Joe once he turns his wardrobe over to Norma, too).

Alas, the three other leads, all carried over from the ENO mounting, are not in their league. The closest is Fred Johanson, who mines a few nuggets of quiet menace as Norma's butler, Max, but much of the rest of the time is flat and overparted by the character's difficult signature song, "The Greatest Star of All." Siobhan Dillon injects Betty, the young screenwriter who competes with Norma for Joe's affections, with a sturdy intelligence, but squeezes no juice or sympathy out of her. And despite having the lion's share of stage time, Michael Xavier is a blank slate of a Joe without a grip of any kind on the personality or dreams he'd need to survive Norma's assault—he ought to be as ruthless and ready to play the game as she is, and the drab Xavier doesn't do much more than hit his marks.

Not that you'll worry about that—or anything else—when Close is around. The electricity she commands energizes not just Sunset Boulevard, but the theatre itself, reminding you of the magic it's capable of conjuring that exists in no other place. Norma has indeed, as she sings, "come home at last," and there's nowhere else you'd rather she be.


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