By Karen Isaacs
Glenn Close is giving a consummate performance as a great diva in the Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard.
She is, of course, playing Norma Desmond, the silent film star who is consumed by delusions that she can, at the age of 50, make a comeback in the Hollywood of the late 1940s. This musicalization of Billy Wilder’s classic Oscar winner of 1950, has the perfect part for a musical comedy diva of a certain age.
The musical – with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics and book by Don Black and
Christopher Hampton – first appeared on Broadway starring Close in 1994. The show had a complicated history that included major revisions between the London and Los Angeles productions, several lawsuits – most notably by Patti Lupone and Faye Dunaway –and a slew of well-known women playing Norma including Lupone, Betty Buckley, Diahann Carroll and Petula Clark. The Australian company included Hugh Jackman as Joe.
In a year (1994) in which there were only three musicals of any distinction (the revival of Showboat and the new musical Smokey Joe’s Café) Sunset did win the Tony for outstanding musical, book, music, lyrics as well as awards for Close and George Hearn who played Max. But it lost out on choreography, direction, sets, costumes, lighting and more.
he show closely follows the film. Norma Desmond is an aging silent movie star living in a Hollywood mansion on Sunset Boulevard taken care by her butler/chauffer Max von Mayerling. She still believes she could return to the screen and has written a massive screen play about Salome which she is convinced that Cecil B DeMille will film with her as the star. Mayerling protects her and reinforces that she is still both remembered and beloved by her fans.
When Joe Gillis, a floundering Hollywood script writer puts his car in her garage (to keep it from getting repossessed), the two meet. Norma hires him to edit her script though it appears she won’t let him cut or change much. He finds himself moved into the room over her garage and soon her constant companion. Whenever he makes a move to leave, she threatens and cajoles him to stay. During the course of the play, Joe becomes more entangled with Norma; tries to extricate himself through a relationship with a studio assistant, and finally learns some truths about Norma.
The show, like the movie, is framed by Joe’s death.
As typical of the Webber shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s, this features a lot of music. It’s not totally sung-through; there is some minimal dialogue, but nearly 40 numbers. Only two of them are even vaguely memorable and the melody for the most well-known, “With One Look,” is repeated endlessly. Despite all the song, in fact it seems as though there are really only two or three melodies in the entire show.
What the show had going for it and still does in this revival, is the stellar performance of Glenn Close, one of the largest orchestras on Broadway, some spectacular costumes and a real car on stage.
But is that enough? It’s hard to say.
This show originated in London at the English National Opera. The four main actors are repeating their roles here.
The real attraction is Glenn Close as Norma Desmond. The night I saw it, the audience was ready to applaud anything she did; they were obviously devoted fans of the show and Glenn Close.
In the musical, Norma is 50 years old (which was the age as Swanson when she played it)
but now Close is almost twenty years older. Yet she still looks great and handles the score well. Her voice does seem to show its age in comparison to the CD of the original production. It sounds moreweary some of the time, lacking some of the strength. Yet she scores with the two major numbers – “With One Face” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”
As Joe Gillis, Michael Xavier seems much too young and naïve in the first act, but he does develops the character in the second act. His voice is good, if not great. The problem for any actor in this role is in the first act. Joe has been around Hollywood for a while and is not a 20-something naïve or idealistic script writer. He knows the score, so how come he doesn’t see what is happening and how Norma is manipulating him and get the heck out?
Sibohan Dillon plays Betty Schaeffer, the studio assistant who begins to develop a relationship with Joe. It is a somewhat thankless role focusing on youthful naiveté and enthusiasm. It’s a good performance but not ground-breaking.
As the faithful servant, Max von Mayerling, Fred Johanson is also good. Again, he is very good but doesn’t break any new ground with the role.
Lonny Price has done the direction on a stage that has limited depth due to the on-stage, large orchestra.
Tracy Christenson created the costumes including a number of expensive looking outfits for Norma. I’m not sure any surpass the original costumes.
One problem with the orchestra on stage, is that your eye is often drawn to it rather than some of the on-stage performers as well as occasionally overwhelming the sound of the performers.
This show is for those who love the movie, the role of Norma Desmond, who have memories of Glenn Close in the original production, or who are devoted Webber fans.
Sunset Boulevard is a limited run through June 25 at the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.