Sunset Boulevard first opened at the Adelphi in 1993, with Patti LuPone playing the ‘faded star of yester-year’. It boasted not only one of the most beautiful and detailed sets ever seen on a West End stage but, in John Napier’s intricate evocation of Hollywood glamour, one of the most thrilling.
The coup de théâtre towards the end of Act One when the audience realised the whole of the interior or Norma Desmond’s house at 10086 Sunset Boulevard could not only move backwards and forwards, but also rise to create a split scene, with Joe Gillis attending a party at Artie Green’s apartment below, whilst above Norma was busy working herself up into the frenzy that would lead to her cutting her wrists, was one of the most magical things I’ve ever seen in the theatre.
This ‘semi-staged’ production at the Coliseum offers none of that. All we get is a pared-down set – of sorts – made of staircases and scaffolding poles, a jumble of chandeliers, and whatever desks, sofa’s and racks of clothing can legitimately be wheeled into place unobtrusively by the cast.
However, that’s more than made up for by the full symphonic weight, centre stage, of the ENO orchestra, a hot new gym-bunny body from the previously rather gangly Michael Xavier, and the presence of a genuine, twenty four carat, above the title star: Glenn Close.
Much to my surprise I found that, stripped of intricate production values and plonked down on this football-pitch of a stage in Saint Martins Lane, the real star of the production is the show itself. I don’t think I’ve actually realised previously how good the writing – both Lloyd Webber’s lushly cinematic score, and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s often laugh-out-loud book and lyrics – really are, but…well…they are. Very good.
Of course, without a cast the show would be nothing, so we have to move on to the inevitable question of whether or not the diva can deliver.
At 69, Glenn Close is almost twenty years older than Gloria Swanson’s movie Norma Desmond, and it’s more than twenty years since she won the 1995 Tony for the same role. In truth, the years have not been especially kind to her vocally, but then she’s an actress first and foremost, and in that respect she can’t be faulted.
Any concerns I might have had about her singing in the first Act – she has an unfortunately placed shift of gear in her voice which this role rather accentuates – were allayed after the interval, and her triumphant nailing of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ towards the beginning of Act Two had the audience – me included – apoplectic with joy at the star’s final arrival, both figuratively in the evening, and literally at Paramount Studios. Real spine tingling stuff. From then on Miss Close could do no wrong, and received a hard earned, but very well deserved series of curtain calls to round off her performance.
Of course, Norma Desmond isn’t the only role, and Michael Xavier with his newly buff physique to match the masculinity of his excellent performance garnered wolf-whistles when exiting Norma’s pool in just his Speedos.
Fred Johanson makes a suitably creepy and well sung Max von Meyerling, even if he does have something on the Nosferatu about him, and Siobhan Dillon’s Betty Schaefer is nicely pure of tone, as are the on-stage orchestra under the baton of Michael Reed. They have rarely sounded as good or, I imagine, been as appreciated.
There’s fresh talk about whether or not Paramount will release the rights for a film version to be made of this musical. I rather hope it goes ahead, though we can but hope the gods of the theatre cast Glenn Close as Norma Desmond, and not Meryl Streep, whose new film has a full-page advertisement on the back cover of the program…