There’s no doubt that every now and again a theatrical event catches fire in London, and for the next five weeks it is the turn of Sunset Boulevard, currently being performed in a semi-staged concert for at the London Coliseum with Glenn Close in the role she performed on Broadway, that of faded film star Norma Desmond.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard returns to the West End following a nearly 20 year absence. As a semi-staged concert with a relatively short run, this production boasts two major factors that should put it on everyone’s must see list. Firstly, the performance of the aforementioned Glenn Close and secondly the 48 piece ENO orchestra.
Set at the close of 1949 and the start of the 1950’s, Sunset Boulevard is a cold Hollywood fable. Stars rise and get dis-guarded by a studio system that is all-powerful, and Norma is very much the by-product of that system, now living in seclusion on the outskirts of what still is a movie town.
Glenn Close is mesmerising as Norma Desmond, she has Norma teetering between Machiavellian manipulation and madness. It’s a balancing act that makes this version of Sunset Boulevard compelling.
When Joe Gillis makes his way to 10086 Sunset Blvd for the first time, Close is abrupt and dismissive, it is not until he mentions his writing credentials that you see Desmond’s mind start to whir into action. The faded star moves straight into performance mode and like the spider in the middle of the web she starts to draw in the prey that is Joe Gillis. At the end of Act One he succumbs and Desmond coldly wraps her arms around her victim.
That’s not to say that Joe is naïve. What makes Sunset work dramatically is that these are two people who meet by chance but who need each other. Norma and her needs suit a desperate Joe, but at some point the piper must be paid. As In Follies, Price’s major contribution to Sunset is to have Norma shadowed by the ghost of her former self. Having been in seclusion for so long, peoples only recollections of her are those which were captured on celluloid, far removed from who she is today, but in the haze of nostalgia, it is perhaps that celluloid Norma that they still see.
Close delivers the blockbuster songs from Lloyd Webber’s score with ease. This is 1000watt star-power and it makes for an intoxicating evening of theatre.
Michael Xavier is Joe Gillis. As the show’s central narrator, we see Norma from his point of view. It’s an assured performance that is cynical and sexual. Like Norma, Joe sees an opportunity and takes it. Little does he realise that he’s playing with an experienced player and is completely out of his depth. Xavier’s singing the title song at the Opening Of Act Two certainly one of the highlights of this production.
Siobhan Dillion plays Betty Shaefer, aspiring screenwriter and challenger for Joe’s heart. Xavier and Dillion make a perfect pairing. Too Much In Love to care has never sounded better. Her portrayal of Betty is intelligent and a joy to listen to.
Fred Johanson is Max, former director, former husband and now a one-man critical care unit for Norma Desmond. He is Norma’s buffer with the real world and fiercely protective of his charge. It’s a masterful performance and Johanson rich Bass-Baritone voice is perfectly suited to the part.
It’s wonderful to see Michael Reed back at the helm of an orchestra. You will never hear the Sunset score sounding better than this. Like a good film score, Lloyd Webber’s music firmly sets the tone of the piece, from the bustle of Hollywood to the calm and solitude of Desmond’s mansion. It underscores dialogue scenes just like a film and when letting rip with numbers like With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye gives Close the kind of backing that most actresses can only dream of. What a joy it is too to hear a full string section back in the West End. The lush sound emanating from these consummate musicians is simply wonderful.
Lonny Price seems to have cemented his place as the go to guy for direction of the concert musical, first with his staged Sweeney Todd and now with Sunset. Price keeps the pace lively, visually interesting and manages to keep the drama building, so that Norma’s collapse becomes all the more poignant. Working with choreographer Stephen Mear, this Sunset is filmic and moves beautifully as scenes fade and others begin concurrently.
James Noone has created a multi-level catwalk system that serves as multiple locations including Desmond’s sprawling mansion and the sound stages at Paramount, the latter ultilising backstage at the Coliseum itself.
If anything the nature of this staging only brings out the performances and shows the considerable talents of Close, Xavier and the cast of Sunset Boulevard. Wilder’s film noir transfers perfectly to this concert version.
If the elongated full house standing ovation is anything to go by, Glenn Close has won the hearts and minds of the London theatregoing public in her West End debut. Let’s hope she will be back soon. Bravo!
Photos: Richard Hubert Smith