Sunset Boulevard**** (London Coliseum)

Posted: April 7, 2016 in Music, Theatre


Let’s not beat about the bush. I really could not stand Patti Lupone’s performance as Norma Desmond in the original London production of Sunset Boulevard at the Adelphi Theatre in 1993. For reasons that it is difficult to explain, she seemed uncomfortable in the role and the songs seemed ill-suited to her voice (although, to be fair to her, she had the disadvantage of the two biggest having already been branded indelibly by La Streisand). Therefore, I looked enviously across the pond when Glenn Close, then at the peak of her film stardom, was cast for the Broadway production. Now, after a wait of more than 20 years, here is that lady herself, belting out “…I’ve been gone too long” to a packed opera house. Sunset is one of those shows that blurs the lines between musical theatre and opera; being almost entirely sung through, it is de facto an opera, but say that softly for fear of damaging its commercial appeal and say it loudly to give the composer an ego boost. Stephen Sondheim has received the accolade, so now it is the turn of Andrew Lloyd Webber. And why not? The show certainly has the melodrama of grand opera, although I’ll leave it to others to judge whether Lloyd Webber’s score matches up to Verdi or Puccini. The book by Christopher Hampton is an adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film and the lyricist is Don Black (doing quite well in St Martin’s Lane right now). Lonny Price’s production is “semi-staged”, which does the show no real harm – the staging of Craig Revel Horwood’s scaled-down non-starry revival at the (then) Comedy Theatre in 2008 could have been described as less than “semi” but I preferred it to Trevor Nunn’s overblown original. A full orchestra, conducted by Michael Reed is positioned centre stage, with the action taking place in front of and above them. The production, which has an ensemble of 14, is patchy and occasionally lacklustre, but the singing and the sound from the orchestra are superb. Fred Johanson, as Max the Butler and Siobhan Dillon as scriptwriter Betty stand out. In particular, Michael Xavier is superb in the show’s biggest (in terms of stage time) role, that of Joe Gillis, the down-and-out scriptwriter held captive in the mansion of faded silent movie star Norma. Gillis is the part that launched the career of Hugh Jackman and something similar for Xavier would not be undeserved. However, it is impossible to escape the fact that Sunset Boulevard is, above all else, a star vehicle and, when that star appears on stage, criticisms that the show is too gloomy melt away. We all know that Close is one of Hollywood’s greatest ever actors, but did we realise that she is such a great diva? Her descent of the staircase singing With One Look is one of those “am I really seeing and hearing this?” moments and none of the great ladies of opera can ever have filled this building with quite such a sound. Not only that, when the standing ovations come (there were three just for her at this performance), she does not shy away coyly, rather she stands front of stage, arms aloft and milks the applause and cheers for all they are worth. It is a joy and a privilege to behold! Norma Desmond had been a great star and she is played here by a great star, the only difference being that Glenn Close’s light is far from fading.

Performance date: 6 April 2016

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