There’s an elite handful of divas going back to 1993 on both sides of the Atlantic identified with the role of Norma Desmond, the tragic, eccentric, eventually deranged, former silver screen heroine of SUNSET BOULEVARD, the musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1952 film noir classic – Patti Lupone (who briefly premiered the role), Glenn Close (who “stole” the role from Ms Lupone according to Ms Lupone), Betty Buckley, Petula Clark, Elaine Page and, in Germany, Helen Schneider. Back again is Glenn Close in a semi-staged version from The English National Opera (ENO) Production originally performed in London last year. This production is more than a concert version (actors are fully costumed), but less than a full production. Props are plentiful, b&w film projections of 1920s and 1950s Los Angeles, too, but the set is static. The orchestra is rear center stage, sometimes behind a transparent scrim, flanked either side by tiered scaffolding that hosts scenes in Norma’s mansion, movie studio offices and LA apartments.
SUNSET BOULEVARD, the musical, is narratively faithful to the famous movie. Studio scriptwriter Joe Gillis, at the end of his string, career- and money-wise, finds refuge by happenstance in the mansion of the reclusive Norman Desmond – protected by her loyal servant Max - where he engages in script-doctoring an overwrought version of Salome she has written as a comeback vehicle. Norma falls in love with Joe, Joe becomes her gigolo but at the same time really falls in love with Betty Schaeffer, a youthful, All-American girl who’s a producer’s assistant at Paramount. The tale concludes when Norma discovers the truth about Joe and Joe confronts Norma with the realities of her paranoia. (No spoiler here in case you’ve been living under a rock.)
Despite the grand tragedy and the grand Andrew Lloyd Weber score, this revived SUNSET BOULEVARD seems a tad reduced in general, and, by contrast, Close’s performance overblown. In the end, it’s out of balance. Close’s portrayal of Norma was always stylized - appropriately so, given the acting techniques of silent pictures – but in the absence of a full-scale production, it presents as mechanized. Part of the problem is that Norma Desmond is by definition a diva. But, over the years, we’ve come to see Close - and the other actresses who portray Norma - as divas, too, so we get a diva doing a diva. Accordingly, the camp quotient rises exponentially. At times, watching Close do Norma is like watching Norma being done in drag - exaggerated, giggling fun. Close’s gargoylish makeup adds to the effect, as do the eye-popping, changes of costumes (I stopped counting at twelve) - an endless display of exotic feathers, sequins, turbans, jewelry – that run the gamut from outlandish to ridiculous. (A high-waisted, jagged zebra-patterned, kimono-styled, poolside caftan with flaming red accents looked like something rescued from a kabuki pageant gone wrong.)
If Close’s Norma delivers perverse amusement, the rest of the cast provides traditional melodramatic ballast. British leading man, Michael Xavier, if not a little short on Gillis’s cynicism, delivers the youthful All-American boy-next-door looks that credibly, both Norma and Betty would find appealing. He’s of strong, clear voice unfailingly, in both duets and solo, particularly in “Sunset Boulevard” that opens the second act. Understudy Britney Coleman played Betty in the performance I saw: she was excellent. Brit Fred Johansen, who, like Xavier, was in the London ENO production, is most impressive as Max: his deep range brings a haunting resonance to his solo number “The Greatest Star of All”.
Lonny Price, one of two lead actors in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG of 1981, who turned to an impressive directing career, paces the action evenly and makes inventive use of the multi-tiered scaffolding. Among the minor roles, it’s nice to see the other male lead from MERRILY - and Price buddy - Jim Walton play a couple of minor parts, including a particularly witty turn as the effeminate haberdasher Manfred in “The Lady’s Paying” number.
Andrew Lloyd Weber’s score holds up pretty well, presented richly by a 36 piece orchestra, revealing more jazz inspiration than I remember. The interstitial “songs” aren’t memorable: they’re not supposed to be, and their lyrics fairly banal, but there’s a handful of “hits.” Besides the rich, brooding melody of “Greatest Star of All”, there’s a catchy bounce to the ensemble “Let’s Have Lunch”, a bittersweet flourish to Joe and Betty’s duet “Too Much in Love to Care” and an irresistible hook to “This Time Next Year.” The biggest and best known numbers, of course, are Norma’s: the elegiac “New Ways to Dream”, the declarative, commanding “With One Look” and the plaintiff “As If We Never Said Goodbye".
In setting up the latter number, there’s a near reproduction of iconic scene from the movie where Norma, visiting DeMille’s Paramount set, sits alone in his director’s chair, until Hog-Eye, the spot guy, recognizes her and directs the light on her. (“Miss Desmond, let’s get a good look at ya”). As the spotlight falls on Close, she assumes a look of abject fright that suggests both the nervous radiance of a youthful Norma and the deeply repressed fears of deluded adult. With THAT one look, in riveting silence, Close creates the goosebump moment that theater is all about, conjuring the wonder in all of us sitting “out there in the dark.” And that’s what a diva can do.
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