Sunset Boulevard – A Performance Not a Show

Twenty-two years ago, Glenn Close won the best actress Tony Award as silent screen star Norma Desmond.  She’s back and better. That’s pretty much all you need to know about this pared down production which comes to us from a successful run in London. The piece itself was never substantial. Unlike Hello Dolly or Gypsy repeated year after year as actresses yearn to execute star turns, both music (Andrew Lloyd Webber) and lyrics (Don Black/Christopher Hampton) here are pedestrian. It should be noted, however, that songs will probably never sound better as performed by a 40! piece orchestra and engineered by Sound Designer Mick Potter.

Glenn Close, Michael Xavier

Transitioning from Billy Wilder’s 1950 film, Sunset Boulevard also lost the pith of the noir aura which, in its initial form, was as morbid as Nathanael West’s 1939 The Day of the Locust. Whereas William Holden’s young screenwriter Joe Gillis was already bitter and cynical, musical theater actors have played him increasingly more innocent and/or compassionate.

The line culminates in Michael Xavier’s portrayal. A good singer and actor (not to mention eye candy), Xavier is made to sympathize with Gillis’s benefactor to such a degree, we lose the repulsion and self loathing, mercenary attitude prevalent in the original.  The former is completely defanged by referring to Norma as 50 years old when, in fact, she’s supposed to be 40-50 years his senior. (Kisses should elicit shudders and don’t.) The latter appears as an afterthought. I lay these issues at the feet of Director Lonny Price, though Close may have demanded the age change.

The Company at Schwab’s

With the show’s orchestra taking up most of a sizable stage, Lonny Price must shift his characters around and above with both visual adroitness and attention to story location. He does so. An overlong party scene of youthful movie hopefuls is graphically upbeat, aided and abetted by Choreographer Stephen Mear’s exuberant moves.

For those of you living under a rock, the synopsis: chased by collectors who will shortly repossess his car, Gillis accidentally wanders onto the grounds of once celebrated, silent screen star Norma Desmond. With the conniving and protection of butler Max von Mayerling (Fred Johanson, who seems more like a cardboard Munster than an ominous obsessive), the former toast of Hollywood lives in a gilded fantasy of return to her public.

Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon

When Gillis learns Norma’s written a massive script in which she expects to play 16 year-old Salome, he signs on to doctor it and shortly ends up living on premises, coddled, gifted, owned. An inadvertent side romance with attractive wannabe writer, Betty Schaeffer (the very fine, fresh, and credible Siobhan Dillon) comes to naught as Norma finds out and takes violent action.

The role of proud, desperate, unbalanced Norma is less camp than frequent embodiment in Glenn Close’s well practiced hands. Older and perhaps more understanding of the diva’s emotions, Close gives us a terrified woman fighting for life as she knows it. She’s persuasively obtuse, imperious, raging, joyful – oh, the expression on her face watching Norma’s film or dancing with Ellis!, and mentally unmoored. Though vocals can be thin or off key, the performer never loses focus or verisimilitude. The audience, having raised Close to a pantheon of appreciated survivors, greets every big number with extensive applause. Three separate bows evoke cheers and stomping.

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Glenn Close

James Noone’s imaginative set utilizes metalwork scaffolding, balconies and stairs to great effect, though performers get a taxing workout. A vertical daisy chain of chandeliers is marvelous as is a floating cadaver. To my mind, the Schwab’s (Drugstore) sign is way too small to allot significance. Mark Henderson’s Lighting Design offers far more nuance than mere gridwork might inspire.

Tracy Christensen does an able job with Costumes which live visually well together and appear period apt. Anthony Powell’s Costume Design for Glenn Close is both wonderfully over the top and flattering without seeming high camp – until the last scene when dressing for an early film purposefully reflects madness. Charlotte Hayward has alas toned down Norma’s exaggerated Make-up.

Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Glenn Close

Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard 
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Lonny Price
Palace Theatre
47th and Broadway                                                                                           

About Alix Cohen (656 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.