Review: The Pictures Get Small as Close Reprises Norma in ‘Sunset Boulevard’
Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, February 9, 2017
Sunset Boulevard, the troubled 1993 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical with a past as melodramatic as its plot, returns to Broadway in a trim new production with the powerhouse that brought it to New York twenty-one years ago.
And the chance to see this beautiful work (book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) is rare. So please, go see it. Based on the gripping 1950 Billy Wilder film (starring Gloria Swanson in her own film return), the original Broadway production ran for a slim two years. A U.S. national tour ran just over one.
Sunset plays strongly to Webber’s strengths, a composer who succeeds in broad strokes. And there are many musical moments in Sunset that are absolutely stunning. In this production (from the English National Opera directed by Lonny Price), these moments are brought to vivid life at the steady and subtle hands of Broadway veteran conductor Kristen Blodgette.
But before I continue in the present…
Webber wrote Sunset’s central character for the Broadway powerhouse Patti LuPone, who became a star in the title role of his Evita. While she played Norma Desmond in London, the first U.S. production of Sunset opened in Los Angeles with Glenn Close in controversial casting. Opening critical acclaim contradicted chatter as Close proved that solid acting chops serve Norma and Sunset as well as do a solid belt. The Broadway production of Sunset moved forward with Close replacing LuPone as Norma, and Faye Dunaway replacing Close in Los Angeles.
But Dunaway was fired prior to her debut, and the L.A. production closed as Close moved to Broadway. Dunaway sued and reportedly settled with the production. In London LuPone, who had been promised Broadway, followed Dunaway’s lead, and (reportedly) also succeeded.
Theater is a tough investment. Settling with two divas prior to a Broadway opening night… Yikes.
Sunset opened successfully in New York, but for the business, problems loomed.
John Napier had designed the set for Webber’s CATS, and Sunset debuted at the very end of the era when sets mattered. His work for CATS and Les Miserables were milestones in design and important to the financial success of these productions. With Sunset, he produced the last of the Broadway mega-sets. It was huge. It was opulent. It was a Hollywood palace that rose and fell and traveled on hydraulics. It was beautiful.
And it was the leading contributor to the death of Sunset’s national tour. It didn’t help the health of its Broadway run either.
But back to the present…
This cast, lead by a sixty-nine year old Ms. Close, is excellent. Webber’s lush score soars with an orchestra of 40. His overture (with orchestrator David Cullen) is wonderfully evocative of a golden Hollywood era. The show’s underscoring is often beautifully tortured. “Too Much In Love to Care” nails its topic.
And “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” is timeless. If you have experienced loss, of any kind, on any scale, this tune speaks. If you are a listener of a certain age, its impact might be exponential to your age.
It is also the most successful moment in this evening, thanks to the powerful performance of Close. This is not a brilliant voice, but Close is a brilliant actress and she negotiates Norma’s tortured journey with a keen eye to the path. I might like to hear LuPone, but I love to watch Close.
Now I’ve said that you should see this production, and that you should. But the night comes with pitfalls.
Price’s production borrows from a (now somewhat tired) trend toward minimalism. Think of the surprisingly successful 1996 revival of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago.
Any cook will tell you to use a great wine in a reduction. Chicago is a great wine. Sunset, I’m afraid, just isn’t. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of this work. It’s really fabulous fun. But transitions are problematic. Someone rhymed “dark” with “dark” in Norma’s first ballad. Sunset just isn’t the perfection you might find in Kander and Ebb or in Sondheim.
So maybe Napier wasn’t so far off after all providing, in his overblown set, the gauze filter that was both understood and welcomed in the film era of the piece.
In this production, the work of Close is most constricted. Her final 15 minutes in the original were edge-of-the-seat gripping, as she paced the staircase and hid behind drapes, gun in hand. Tonight these moments disappointed. Not to live in the past, but Close’s work soared on Napier’s set in a way that it didn’t quite match this go around.
Michael Xavier excels as Joe Gillis, with an affable ease and comfortable voice. Siobhan Dillon is charming as Betty Schaeffer, appropriately less glamorous than Alice Ripley who preceded her in New York. Fred Johanson sings Max well.
And Glenn Close plays Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway. “Now go.”
Sunset Boulevard, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black and Christopher Hampton at the Palace Theatre through May 28, 2017. Directed by Lonny Price, choreography by Stephen Mear, orchestrations and vocal arrangements by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber, set by Johnny Hon, costumes by Tracy Christensen, lighting by Mark Henderson, sound by Mick Potter, Glenn Close costumes by Anthony Powell, wig, hair and makeup by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas, fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet, musical supervision and direction by Kristen Blodgette, music coordination by David Lai.
With Glenn Close (Norma Desmond), Michael Xavier (Joe Gillis) Siobhan Dillon (Betty Schaeffer), Fred Johanson (Max von Mayerling) and with Nancy Anderson, Mackenzie Bell, Preston Truman Boyd, Barry Busby, Britney Coleman, Julia. 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 Schoefler, Andy Taylor, Sean Thompson, Matt Wall and Jim Walton
Cover Photo: Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard;’ photo: Joan Marcus.