To borrow Norma Desmond’s expression, Glenn Close is enjoying a phenomenal “return” to Broadway, and to her 1994 Tony-winning role, with this unique, glossy, concert-like staging of Sunset Boulevard.
Presented by London’s ENO in 2016, this production features a whopping 40-piece orchestra, reportedly the largest ever employed on Broadway. Far too numerous for the pit, the musicians occupy must of the stage, where James Noone’s three-level set soars around and above them.
Bringing to mind the 2011 UK production of Singin’ in the Rain, the whole show is set on a movie sound stage. A vertical abstract collage of chandeliers flies in to represent scenes in Ms Desmond’s Hollywood mansion; clever use is also made of the venue in these scenes by gently illuminating the decadently gilded auditorium of the Palace Theatre. While car chase scenes are staged by actors running about holding headlights, the production boasts a superb recreation of Ms Desmond’s grey Isotta Fraschini, which features in a significant plot point.
In a nice piece of entertainment synergy, Sunset Boulevard is playing on Broadway while Feud plays on television. The musical includes many of the same themes as the television series (and there is even a gossip columnist in a floral hat). The musical enhances the nostalgia with black and white footage of Hollywood in the 1940s.
Director Lonny Price makes excellent use of the multi-level set, but keeps key scenes downstage centre to bring clarity of Don Black’s dense lyrics. Price has added a glamorous “Young Norma,” who haunts the stage like a spectral showgirl from Follies. Another example of Price’s intelligent, insightful direction comes when Cecil B. De Mille does a double take at seeing Norma’s manservant Max, foreshadowing the reveal of Max’s past.
Joining The Phantom of the Opera, School of Rock and Cats, the arrival of Sunset Boulevard brings Andrew Lloyd Webber’s concurrent Broadway shows to four, a feat rarely achieved in Broadway history. Using his flair for pastiche, Webber wrote wonderfully atmospheric themes for Sunset Boulevard, creating the effect of soundtrack music for a movie. While there are some excellent key songs, such as the lush waltz “The Perfect Year,” the expositional singing tends to become a little tedious. In an example of Webber’s syrupy style with duets, which was lampooned in Spamalot with “The Song That Goes Like This,” Joe and Betty’s late act two duet “Too Much In Love To Care” remains an example of a pretty tune used in a moment when the audience just really does not care.
While there are only four lead characters, Webber’s use of a large ensemble brings a Golden Age feel to the show. Full company numbers are enhanced by Stephen Mear’s nifty choreography.
Norma’s bountiful wardrobe uses the majority of Tracy Christensen’s costume budget. Highlights include the red Asian wrap and black turban worn in “The Lady’s Paying” and the glittering dark gold New Year’s Eve gown.
Close is in superb form as fading movie star Norma Desmond. The revival has the strong sense of being a Broadway Event, and Close’s involvement is a significant factor in this. A little shaky in her upper register, Close is confidently secure and wonderfully expressive on midrange vocals. Fortunately, act two power ballad “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is pitched perfectly for Close, and her performance of this song, along with Price’s deftly spare direction of the number, brings the house down as waves of thunderous applause and cheers stop the show for minutes.
Tall and handsome UK actor Michael Xavier has a terrific voice and a magnetic presence. Further assets include a mighty pair of pectoral muscles, seen to great effect as Joe emerges from Norma’s pool, wet and glistening in royal blue trunks, in the title number.
At this performance, the role of Betty Schaeffer was played by Stephanie Martignetti. A very sweet singer, Martignetti played the hopelessly doomed romance well, but smoked a cigarette as if it was the first time in her entire life.
Swedish actor Fred Johanson brings his delectably rich bass baritone voice to the role of Max, bringing a rumbling mellifluousness to the low notes then gliding easily to the higher register.
Sunset Boulevard plays a limited engagement at Palace Theatre, New York until 25 June 2017.
Photos: Joan Marcus