Monday, March 6, 2017

Review of "Sunset Boulevard"

There are two reasons to see the revival of Sunset Boulevard on Broadway.  First, is the luminous performance of Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, recreating her Tony Award winning role from 23 years ago.  Close, older now, but lacking none of her vitality, totally embodies the character of the aged, fading silent movie star.  This is one of those defining theatrical performances that should not be missed.

The second reason is the 20 plus member orchestra, women in black gowns, men in tuxedos, seated on stage, an unheard of number of musicians in today’s Broadway.  The lush, full sound envelopes The Palace Theatre unlike any other show on Broadway.  While the score is not top tier Andrew Lloyd Webber there are a number of defining songs – “With One Look,” “The Perfect Year,” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” – that receive a captivating and heavenly sound.

Sunset Boulevard, based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, “revolves around Norma Desmond, a faded star of the silent screen era, living in the past in her decaying mansion on the fabled Los Angeles street. When young screenwriter Joe Gillis accidentally crosses her path, she sees in him an opportunity to make her comeback to the big screen. Romance and tragedy follow.” (  Librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton stick closely to the movie plot, making sure to provide Ms. Close with enough star turns, which is fine since the show sags somewhat when she is not on stage..

For this limited run Scenic Designer James Noone has created a starker production design then during the original run, with a series of stairways and interconnecting catwalks filling up the stage.  This forces us to focus on the actors as opposed to the opulence and decay within Norma Desmond’s world.  Costume Designer Tracy Christensen has pulled out all the stops with her extravagant, sometimes garish outfits for the character.  All are showstoppers.

The main supporting cast members are mostly effective in their roles without outshining for one moment the star of the show.  Michael Xavier gives screenwriter Joe Gillis the requisite down-on-his-luck, sarcastic edge, but he comes across as too much of a cad, no matter what the circumstance or situation.  Siobhan Dillion’s portrayal of Besty Schaeffer finely toes the line of hard-driving career girl with spunk and a heaping dash of insecurity.  Fred Johanson as Nora Desmond’s manservant and one-time director, Max Von Mayerling, needs to provide more variation to his characterization.  He comes across a bit wooden and one-dimensional.

The score, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, has a sumptuousness and grandeur quality made more impressive with the overly large on-stage orchestra.  As stated earlier, the musical has a number of signature songs delivered in a stirring and sophisticated fashion by Ms. Close.  Overall, though, the score is not one of the composing team’s strongest efforts.

Director Lonny Price smartly keeps Glenn Close center stage as much as possible.  When she is not the focus the production slips, waiting for her poise, worldliness, and energy to take hold.  All of this comes together in the dazzling Act II scene at the Paramount Studio backlot and the actress’s rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”  Her brilliance does overshadow the secondary characters in the musical and the show would have benefitted more fully if Price was able to give each of them an added dimension.    His inclusion of the on-stage orchestra adds a unique and satisfying element to the production.  The car chase through the LA canyon is an inspired piece of stagecraft.

Sunset Boulevard, catch it for Glenn Close’s thrilling, once in a lifetime performance.

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