Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Norma's Still Big, It's Just the Set That Got Small

Review: Sunset Boulevard

Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis and Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

Of the many lovely moments in the current revival of Sunset Boulevard playing at the Palace Theatre, the one which best highlights this production's strengths occurs midway through the second act. While visiting the Paramount Studios lot, a spotlight hits faded silent film star Norma Desmond, embodied by a sensational Glenn Close reprising her Tony-winning performance. A glorious swell of music from the 40-piece orchestra accompanies the moment, before Desmond tentatively begins the show's signature ballad, "As If We Never Said Goodbye." Close masterfully builds the song over the course of the next 4 minutes, transporting audiences back to Desmond's glory days in a revelatory performance that rightly earns showstopping levels of applause. In the course of that one song, the full virtues of the scaled back physical production, increased orchestra size, and Close's near-legendary performance crystallize into musical theatre nirvana, a breathtakingly theatrical moment that is nearly worth the price of admission on its own.

If the rest of the show doesn't quite reach such dizzying heights, it is not for lack of trying. When Sunset Boulevard originally opened to a then-record breaking advance sale in 1994, the show won 8 Tony Awards due primarily to a lack of competition (the only other new musical of the season was the revue Smokey Joe's Cafe). For better and for worse, the show typifies composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's style, with an emphasis on lush melodies and almost through-composed scores that value big emotions over subtlety and nuance. Which makes director Lonny Price's decision to revive the show as a semi-staged concert which literally places the orchestra (and by extension the music) center stage a stroke of genius. Conductor Kristen Blodgette brings out an incredible amount of texture and sophistication from Webber's score, and hearing it performed live with such a large and accomplished group of musicians is a true joy. And while the book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton can come across as somewhat clunky, the sweeping melodies and grand scope of the music largely compensate for it.

The other smart decision in Price's staging is to pare things down to a minimal, unit set designed by James Noone. The original production famously lost money due in no small part to the exorbitant running costs incurred by its mammoth mansion set, which many felt distracted from the storytelling. By eliminating much of the technical wizardy, Price allows the story to take center stage, giving its themes about the addictive and destructive nature of fame more room to breath. The human story of struggling writer Joe Gillis getting pulled into Norma Desmond's delusions of grandeur is plenty interesting on its own, and not being distracted by giant sets helps keep the focus where it ought to be. (Tracy Christensen and Anthony Powell's costumes provide a suitable level of grandeur for this tale of fame and excess.)

The amount of gravitas Close brings to the role of Desmond cannot be overstated, anchoring the production with her utter believability and unparalleled command of her craft. From the moment she makes her entrance at the top of the show's grand staircase, it is clear you are in the presence of a star. Norma's first big number describes how in her heyday, the silent screen actress could hold an audience captive "With One Look;" Close can and repeatedly does do the same, capturing Norma's oversized nature without descending into camp. She is convincingly, compelling unhinged, but there is a tragedy to her Norma that in glimpsed during her repeated fits of melancholy, such as a devastating scene towards the end of Act I where she fears Joe will abandon her. Close's ability to act through song also more than makes up for any difficulties she might have with Webber's admittedly challenging score, and she still has the big money notes when it counts.

Close's three costars, all reprising their performances from the West End staging of this production, are quite strong as well. Michael Xavier makes for an excellent Joe Gillis, functioning as our entryway into Norma's world and sharing the audience's mix of incredulity and fascination. His scenes with Close form the backbone of the narrative, and they all sparkle with a mesmerizing push and pull between attraction and revulsion. Siobhan Dillon is fantastic as young Betty Schaeffer, the studio assistant who finds herself falling for Joe even while he becomes a kept man at Norma's mansion. And Fred Johanson is suitably imposing as Norma's unerringly loyal butler Max, a foreboding presence with a gloriously rich bass voice and eyes which are deep pools of unspoken emotion.

Ultimately, this Sunset Boulevard makes a strong case for the show being one of Lloyd Webber's more compelling works, adding a layer of narrative depth to his typically lush, ballad-heavy compositional style. Price's direction and minimalist staging keeps the focus on the music and the story, allowing the show to feel personal despite the inarguable bigness of many of the musical numbers. The cast is quite strong, with Glenn Close in particular offering the kind of performance that Broadway legends are made of. This staging doesn't quite overcoming some of the shortcomings of the show's book, but as long as Close is onstage supported by that massive orchestra, you aren't likely to care.


  1. If the Tony rule that says actors can't win multiple Tonys for playing the same character didn't exist, do you think Glenn Close would win another Tony for this?

    1. There's a lot of Best Actress contenders we haven't even seen yet. But it's a moot point, as the rule does exist, and I'm glad it does for this very reason. Glenn Close is fantastic, but she has been recognized for this role already; I'm all for spreading the love.