New York City Theater
She sits in a director’s chair, regally dressed in the black and white shades of silent films. Workers and actors bustle about, paying her no attention, intent on rehearsing a DeMille Technicolor spectacle. “Miss Desmond, let’s get a look at you,” a grip suddenly calls from high up on a platform. Slowly, he turns his spotlight. A pool of white hugs the floor as it seeks Norma Desmond, the aging, faded star, back in the studio at last. As the spot finds her, other lights from above flood her with intensive, incandescent affection.
It’s a thrilling moment, at once recognizing a performer’s need for being in the light, for being recognized, for being loved, while dazzling her dreams as well as ours. The theater audience applauds, feeling in its collective bones that instant of approval. They, too, want that adulation. Barring that, they shower their love on Glenn Close who plays the voracious Norma Desmond in the revival of “Sunset Boulevard.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stab at director Billy Wilder’s film masterpiece is a mixed bag. With serviceable lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, as well as the two men’s libretto that sticks closely to the film, this is more concert version than elaborately staged production. James Noone’s set pares down the original’s extravagance to a series of platforms, with film footage setting and bridging scenes.
Where Wilder’s film was gothic, bitter, ironic, ghoulishly amusing, even nasty, the musical lacks its biting claustrophobia. Stephen Sondheim once asked Wilder about musicalizing the movie, prompting Wilder to say it might work but only as an opera.
Enter Webber, always the composer most yearning to write an opera. For this showing, he has a lush 40-piece Met-size orchestra that sits on stage while actors scurry above and around. Conducted with fervor by Kristen Blodgette, the orchestra, with its dynamic climaxes, lulls listeners into thinking they’re hearing an enduring operatic score.
Except for the admittedly gorgeous “With One Look,” “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and one or two others, the score is filled with singsong recitative. Stephen Mear’s choreography is pedestrian, but director Lonny Price keeps things moving despite occasional missteps, like having two choristers run around with headlights in their hands, as if they were autos.
Yet none of that really matters since the show’s excuse and chief asset is Glenn Close as the fading star. She plays her as eccentric, egotistical and demanding but avoids making her into a gorgon. She may not be as exotic as Gloria Swanson was in the film (except for her magnificent costumes by Anthony Powell), but Close infuses Norma with old-fashioned womanly grace and hunger. Her voice is not what it was two decades ago, when she first did the role. But she knows how to command the stage, never relinquishing the spotlight. If she doesn’t rise to tragic size, she exudes pathos and sensuality. Just watch her grand gesture over the coffin of her deceased pet monkey.
Fred Johanson is superb as Max, her former husband and film director; his rendering of “The Greatest Star of All” is both creepy and pathetic. The strapping Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Norma’s gigolo, and the attractive Siobhan Dillon as Joe’s love, Betty, are rather bland.
But who can outglow Close’s Norma? Shrinking into oblivion, Norma’s private life is a mess. But when she – and the show -- come to life in the second act studio scene, you can believe her claim that “We taught the world new ways to dream.”
--David A. Rosenberg
Feb. 20, 2017