Thursday, February 23, 2017

SUNSET BOULEVARD: With Just One Look, Glenn Close Has Us in the Palm of Her Hand

Glenn Close as Norma Desmond
Photo by Nick Wall

Here she is, boys! Here she is, world! 

It's Norma Desmond, back on Broadway again, lighting up the stage of the Palace Theatre in a grand and glorious return befitting a queen - albeit a narcissistic, manipulative, gothic, opium dream of a queen.       

Gloria Swanson's portrayal
Yes, she's back, that crazed silent film phenomenon so perfectly portrayed by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir classic Sunset Boulevard, and then later turned into a musical star by  Andrew Lloyd Webber, no less a phenomenon himself.    

Webber (more formally, The Right Honourable The Lord Lloyd Webber -- or, if you prefer, Baron Lloyd Webber of Sydmonton in the County of Hampshire), who is about to turn 69, finds himself in the extraordinary position of being represented by four separate musicals currently on Broadway (Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and School of Rock are the others). 

But enough of the composer, not to mention (and no one ever does) the book's writers and lyricists Don Black and Christopher Hampton. It's really the star you're interested in - Glenn Close, who is recreating her Tony winning performance from 1995. 

Let's get one bit of unpleasantness out of the way first. Other "Normas" (Patti LuPone, Elaine Paige, and Betty Buckley) were truly able to deliver the vocal goods when it comes to Mr. Lloyd Webber's opera-ish score. With Ms. Close... let's just say it's fitting that her character gained her one-time position at the top rung of the Hollywood movie star ladder as a silent actress, someone who could devastate audiences "with one look." 



This is something Ms. Close clearly understands when it comes to "selling" Norma to a Broadway audience. Vocal challenges notwithstanding, there is not a moment she is on stage that is not pure gold. And when she's off, all you can do is await her return.  

It's a good thing, too, because as a musical, Sunset Boulevard has little reason to exist. This is not one of Mr. Lloyd Webber's stronger scores, lacking the cohesiveness of Evita, say. Instead, there's a mishmash of styles, with a lot of soaring anthems serving as anchors. And even Norma's two big front-and-center numbers are suggestive of other pieces by other composers. (You might wish to compare "With One Look" with the aria "Avant De Quitter Ces Lieux" from Gounod's opera Faust, and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" with "Pure Imagination" from Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley's score for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

So, a stage version of Sunset Boulevard without the music might work just as well, maybe even better. You might be able to mine the story of Norma Desmond, her bought-and-paid-for lover Joe  (Michael Xavier), and her protector Max (Fred Johanson) for the rich vein of cynicism and faded glory that made Billy Wilder's film so memorable. 

But, still, there is something about a big Broadway musical, with, as is the case here, a 40-piece on-stage orchestra grandly performing the lushly arranged (by the composer and David Cullen) orchestrations. The sheer awesomeness of it all almost makes up for the lack of depth and its overlong subplots.   

Where the original production gave us a gaspingly ornate set, that has been replaced with a more efficient one that calls on us to use our imaginations as we move to different locales without really going anywhere. One thing I think works rather well is that the basic set design places us in both the film studio and Norma's mansion at the same time, a fitting representation of the state of her mind.  

Lonny Price directs the enterprise the way Norma would want to be directed by Cecil B. DeMille, with her at the center of the universe. The rest of the cast is certainly talented, but no one is allowed to match, or even come close to, the powerful presence of Ms. Close as she puts Norma's neuroses and psychoses out there for all of us to gape at; Indeed, it is easy to see why Joe and Max are subsumed. Norma is a black hole from which there can be no escape.  

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