Twenty-two years after creating the role on Broadway of the delusional, faded silent movie star Norma Desmond, for which she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, Ms. Close is still sleek, fearless and riveting.
Parading around, often down staircases in Anthony Powell’s opulent costumes of turbans, furs, feathers, animal prints, and glittery creations, Close fuses her own stardom with that of the character.
Her singing of the modern standard show tunes, “With One Look,” “The Perfect Year” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” is sensational. There is occasional wavering in her top register that is understandable with the passage of time, but that never deters from her stunning characterization.
Embracing the role’s campiness, yet being totally realistic, Close gives one of those monumental performances of musical theater history. This is no mere star showcase, as the rest of the cast is of comparable caliber.
The handsome, youthful but mature and charismatic British actor Michael Xavier takes on the role of the down on his luck Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis. He is just as hard-edged as William Holden in the movie. Highlights of Mr. Xavier’s winning performance include his electrifying singing of the cynical title song and his emerging from a cleverly indicated swimming pool in blue trunks. After exhibiting his exceptional physique, he does a hilarious “What?” following the audience’s enthusiastic reaction. Most crucially, Xavier is an equal to Close and their chemistry is prevalent.
Shaven-headed, imposing and using a slight German accent, Fred Johanson’s performance as Max von Mayerling the butler is a terrific blend of pathos and dry humor. Mr. Johanson lurks over much of the action in commanding silence with pointed interjections.
Siobhan Dillon plays the idealistic Paramount Pictures employee, Betty Schaeffer who falls for Joe Gillis. With her lovely singing and bright, girlish presence, Ms. Dillon makes a great impression.
This production began in 2016, as a five-week run, presented by the English National Opera at The London Coliseum. It was notable for its sizable orchestra and at 40 pieces it is the largest for a Broadway musical in modern history. The four principal actors from London are recreating their performances for this Broadway engagement. Also repeating his work here is director Lonny Price.
Mr. Price has strikingly reclaimed the material from memories of its initial, overblown incarnation. Mr. Price creatively realizes it by concentrating on the performances and emphasizing the score through scaling back the technical elements.
The show opens with and periodically has black and white film projections evoking late 1940’s Los Angeles. James Noone’s unit set design is a relatively restrained but visually arresting compendium of staircases, ramps, weathered columns as well as easily moved furnishings. It all frames the performers and the action that is front and center.
Mark Henderson’s lighting design quite effectively employs stark brightness and film-noirish shadows to great effect. Mick Potter’s sound design is overall proficient but at times unbalanced, muting the richness of the orchestra.
Tracy Christensen has costumed everyone other than Close. Her fanciful array of baggy trousers, long tight skirts and sweaters has authentic 1940’s look. These are shown off during Stephen Mear’s lively choreography as performed by the highly talented ensemble and supporting cast.
The score remains an uneven but catchy patchwork that has yielded several choice songs amidst the acceptable filler. Mr. Lloyd Webber’s music is a heady pastiche of old movie melodies with discernable portions of his Evita and The Phantom of The Opera. Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s lyrics range from inspired to pedestrian.
Mr. Black and Mr. Hampton’s book is a faithful, clever and streamlined distillation of director Billy Wilder’s 1950 cynical masterpiece film that he co-wrote with Charles William Brackett.
It is Hollywood in 1949, and Joe Gillis’ car breaks down at the grand estate of Norma Desmond. Her silent film stardom was eclipsed by the emergence of talking pictures. Long in reclusive retirement, she lives in the past, attended to by her manservant Max. He was once a famed film director and is her ex-husband. Desmond is attracted to Joe, and instigates a romantic relationship that includes his rewriting of her massive film script based on Salomé. She believes that this will bring her back to the movies.
The dead body in the swimming pool, the chimpanzee’s funeral and Cecil B. DeMille on a sound stage is all there, as is the immortal dialogue including, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” “It’s a return!” (not a comeback) and “The lady is paying” are also among the well-known gems that are delivered.
Following productions in London and Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard originally opened on Broadway starring Close in November 1994. Though it ran for 977 performances and won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, it closed as a financial failure. At $13 Million, it was the largest budget in Broadway history up to that time. The consensus was that its mammoth production design of enormous sets overwhelmed the actual show.
Besides being a victory for Ms. Close and Mr. Price, this revival is also one for Mr. Lloyd Webber. He has the rare distinction of an individual having four shows running concurrently on Broadway. Besides this Sunset Boulevard revival these are The Phantom of The Opera, School of Rock and a revival of Cats.
Sunset Boulevard (extended through Jun 25, 2017)
English National Opera production
Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 877-250-2929 or visit
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission