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Sunset Boulevard Review: Ready for Glenn Close Up

hillaryatsunsetThere was thunderous applause the night I saw “Sunset Boulevard” for Hillary Clinton as she took her seat right before the musical began. It would be snarky to observe it was the greatest ovation of the night, but I was struck by how much was packed into that greeting – admiration, defiance, a shared history, shared emotion, a shared loss.

There was certainly admiration for the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, especially for the dazzling encore performance of Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, 22 years after she won a Tony Award for the same role. But this show about a once-famous film star trying for a comeback, and the screenwriter who becomes her boy toy and her victim, carried relatively little emotional weight or complexity.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

There was one moment in the show that actually moved me. That was when Norma is visiting her old movie studio, ignored by everybody bustling about except for one old member of the crew, who shines a spotlight on her. The actors dressed in Samson and Delilah outfits and the camera operators one by one stop what they’re doing to look at her. She basks in the light, glows in it, but her expression is tinged with something deeper, something close to fear and sorrow. She stands there like that, soaking it in, letting us soak it in, before she starts singing “As If We Never Said Goodbye” — the most effective lead-in to a song I think I’ve ever seen on a stage.

But then the song itself, as melodic and touching as it is, ends with: “We taught the world new ways to dream.”

That is one of the lyrics that drive home what I consider a fatal flaw in much of the remaining 150 minutes of “Sunset Boulevard,” a musical adaptation of the 1950 movie that was directed by Billy Wilder and starred Gloria Swanson. In the movie, Norma Desmond is delusional. But the Lloyd Webber musical shares much of her delusion. Rather than the film’s grim and ironic satire of Hollywood, the stage “Sunset Boulevard” is really an homage to (and embodiment of) big, empty commercial entertainment.

Yes, I know, this production – directed by Lonny Price and originally presented by the English National Opera in London — is being touted as a pared down concert version. This is a, well, semi-delusional claim. There is indeed a 40-piece orchestra placed Encores-like on stage. There is also

a cast of more than two dozen

a new gorgeous costume for Glenn Close in each and every scene

a working antique car (a “Isotta-Fraschini”)

a life-sized dummy suspended above the stage (the murder victim we see at the outset of the show, that is supposed to make it a stage noir, which it isn’t)

and the pool of water where the orchestra pit is normally located, from which emerges Joe Gillis (Norma’s kept man, portrayed by Michael Xavier) in wet bathing suit and glistening pectorals.

Yes, yes, the set is surely less elaborate than the original Broadway production: In that version, Norma is alone on New Year’s Eve in her exquisite palazzo, appointed with a working pipe organ and a majestic staircase, when it is literally lifted up into the air, revealing a crowded party in a cramped Hollywood apartment in the bottom half – a living split screen, one of the most memorable stage effects ever. (I’ll confess that’s one of the few things I remember from the 1994 show, winner of seven Tonys, including best musical.) But James Noone’s set for the revival can be considered bare bones only if the bones belonged to Tyrannosaurus rex. It is an elaborate multi-tiered maze of staircases and catwalks, with the “HOLLYWOOD” sign behind it, and interspersed with the odd gold-and-crystal chandelier.

The large orchestra certainly makes Lloyd Webber’s score sound better than it would have if played by 40 kazoos, but, as tuneful as some of it is, all the violins in the world can’t turn it into Puccini.

“Sunset Boulevard” is ersatz opera of the outsized and mostly overwrought kind that Broadway audiences have been eating up, on and off, since the 1980s. It’s noteworthy, then, that this production (and the one in 1994) cast Glenn Close, whose voice is, to put it politely, far from operatic. Her power resides in her acting; her Norma manages, at its best, to be both steely and vulnerable, sinking into herself and dominating everything and everyone. Most of the other cast members hardly register by comparison. (One exception is Fred Johanson as the odd Max von Mayerling, her driver and protector, who makes the most of his one song.)

Glenn Close gets seriously into her character. But at the same time, when Joe says on meeting her “Aren’t you Norma Desmond?….You use to be big,” there’s something of an implied wink in her delivery of the most famous line in the musical (and in the movie): “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”  That’s a moment when the audience can say: I’m with her.

Sunset Boulevard

Book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton; Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton; Based on the film by Billy Wilder.

Directed by Lonny Price; Choreographed by Stephen Mear; Associate Director: Matt Cowart

Scenic Design by James Noone; Costume Design by Tracy Christensen; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Mick Potter; Original Glenn Close Costume Designs: Anthony Powell; Glenn Close Wig Design: Andrew Simonin; Glenn Close’s Makeup Design: Charlotte Hayward; Hair and Wig Design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas; Makeup Design by Dave Bova and J. Jared Janas; Associate Costume Design: Abby Hahn; Associate Lighting Design: Travis McHale; Associate Sound Design: Adam Fisher; Associate Wig Design: Brittany Hartman

Cast: Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaeffer, Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling, Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Nancy Anderson, Mackenzie Bell,Preston Truman Boyd, Artie Green, 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 as Cecil B. DeMille, Andy Taylor as Sheldrake, Sean Thompson, Matt Wall, Jim Walton as Manfred

Musical Director: Kristen Blodgette; Music orchestrated by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber; Vocal and Incidental Music Arrangements: David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber

Musical Supervisor: Kristen Blodgette; Musical Coordinator: David Lai; Conducted by Kristen Blodgette; Keyboard 1: Michael Patrick Walker; Keyboard 2: Dale Rieling; Concert Master: Kelly Hall-Tompkins; First Violin: Katherine Livolsi-Landau, Karl Kawahara, Victoria Paterson, Sebu Sirinian and Svetlana Tsoneva; Second Violin: Mineko Yajima, Elizabeth Nielsen, Louise Owen, Rena Isbin and Patricia Davis; Viola: David Creswell, Mark Holloway, Richard Brice and Jennifer Herman; Cello: Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf, Robert Burkhart and Emily Brausa; Bass/Electric Bass Peter Donovan; Bass: Lisa Stokes; Flute/Alto Flute: Liz Mann; Flute/Piccolo: Kathleen Nester; Oboe/Cor Anglais: Julia DeRosa; Clarinet: Todd Palmer; Clarinet 2/Tenor Saxophone: Rob Jacoby; Bass Clarinet/Alto Saxophone 1: Andrew Sterman; Bassoon 1: Damian Primis; Bassoon 2: Cynde Iverson; Horn 1: Mike Atkinson; Horn 2: Will de Vos; Trumpet/Piccolo: John Chudoba; Trumpet 2: Alex Holton; Trombone: Mark Patterson; Bass Trombone: Jeremy Morrow; Harp: Grace Paradise; Guitar: Nate Brown; Drums: Michael Croiter; Percussion: Daniel Haskins; Synthesizer Programmer: Stuart Andrews; Music Copying: Emily Grishman Music Preparation and Adriana Grace

Running time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.

Tickets: $79-$250

“Sunset Boulevard” is scheduled to run through June 25, 2017 (which is an extension of its original run.)

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About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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