Palace Theatre, NYC, February 17, 2016
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes
Glenn Close received a Tony Award for her 1995 turn as the dazzling former movie queen, Norma Desmond, in the opulent Broadway premiere of Sunset Boulevard. This time around, her dramatization is even more dazzling. Close’s no-holds-barred theatricality is razor-sharp and, while her voice is thinner and fading in the high notes, it strikes with the compelling drama of a delusional former star. The production itself is scaled down from its former lavish sets, although the 40-piece onstage orchestra led by Kristen Blodgette thrills, bringing the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic melodies to glorious heights.
Directed expeditiously by Lonny Price, the adaptation of the Billy Wilder 1950 film Sunset Boulevard makes it the fourth Lloyd Webber musical simultaneously on Broadway (School of Rock, Cats, and The Phantom of the Opera). With the melodramatic book and occasionally clumsy lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, the focus is on Close, sublimely costumed by Anthony Powell, evoking the glamorous narcissism that drives and destroys Norma Desmond. Yet, Close dampens the film’s Gloria Swanson insanity and shows the character’s palpable emotional softness. Vulnerability brings empathy to Norma even as her mind, whirling on the edge of madness, soars to an apogee of hope and then collapses with despair when life, love and age disappoint her.
In her lonely mansion, Norma lives in the past, wearing spectacular vintage clothes, wigs by Andrew Simonin and made up for a close-up by Charlotte Hayward. Her only companion is an intimidating and fiercely protective majordomo, Max von Mayering. As Max, Fred Johanson possesses a glorious bass-baritone voice, heartrending as he sings about Norma in her glory days when she was “The Greatest Star of All.” For Max, she will forever remain the greatest star. He supports her fantasies about the day when Cecil B. DeMille will summon her for another movie, and now Norma is writing a script for a silent film where she will play the part of Salome.
From the English National Opera production, Michael Xavier plays narrator Joe Gillis, seen at the top of the show as a dead body floating in Norma’s swimming pool on Sunset Boulevard. Through flashbacks, we learn he is a hard luck writer having a tough time until he finds himself stranded outside Norma’s mansion. She offers this young, handsome stranger a job polishing her overburdened script. Singing “The Lady’s Paying,” he finally has some money and new clothes despite having to endure Norma’s idiosyncrasies. Still, he wavers from savoring the luxury of her lifestyle to loathing his gigolo status that only increases as Norma’s feelings for him heat up. This reaches a peak on New Year’s Eve when they tango, shadowed by a younger Norma.
Frustrated and feeling stifled, he declares, “I Had to Get Out,” and runs off to meet his friends, including a pretty screenwriter, Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon, who played the part in the West End).
While Xavier has a pleasing baritone voice, he lacks the depth to persuasively interpret the self-hatred of Joe Gillis, memorably played in the film by William Holden. Dillon is perky in a slight role and has no chemistry with Xavier, even as she later urges him to run away with her with “Too Much in Love to Care.”
Even with a large ensemble, it is Glenn Close who rules this show and rules it with grandeur, stopping the show several times. When Joe asks her, “Aren’t you Norma Desmond? You used to be in pictures. You used to be big,” Norma responds with bravado, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Huge applause. When she sings “With One Look” (“No words can tell/ The stories my eyes tell”) — another ovation. In her Act Two scene return to Paramount, believing that DeMille (Paul Schoeffler) has summoned her to bring the script, Close again stops the show with her heartbreaking stunner, “As If We Never Said Goodbye.”
At the end of the show, Close had four curtain calls. It is not implausible to believe that her nuanced acting led her to play Norma in the original Broadway production instead of Patti LuPone, a stronger singer, who originated Norma in London.
Set designer James Noone placed the orchestra onstage, using the pit as the swimming pool where Joe’s body floats. Noone designed industrial stairs and walkways up and around the stage for Close to sweep along and the group scenes to gather and party to Stephen Mear’s choreography. For the ensemble, period costumes by Tracy Christensen contrast dramatically with Norma’s ornamental clothes, and moods of ultra-glamour are created by Mark Henderson’s imaginative lighting.
Norma Desmond was a has-been in Hollywood at age 50. Today, age problems for women remain, but in Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard, Glenn Close, age 69, is ready for Norma’s close-up with authority and validity.