Review: Glenn Close is scary good in 'Sunset Boulevard' on Broadway

When Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of "Sunset Boulevard" first opened at London's Adelphi Theatre in 1993, audiences were dazzled by John Napier's gilded re-creation of Norma Desmond's mansion of deranged despair. This unforgettable...

Review: Glenn Close is scary good in 'Sunset Boulevard' on Broadway

When Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical version of "Sunset Boulevard" first opened at London's Adelphi Theatre in 1993, audiences were dazzled by John Napier's gilded re-creation of Norma Desmond's mansion of deranged despair. This unforgettable gothic-baroque — and irony-free — hunk of maximalist expressionism came replete with a huge pipe organ and enough twisting nooks and crevices to tease the eye all night. It allowed for noir accommodation but was burnished in the darkest of brooding golds.

Producers brooded too, as the show's huge running costs, especially on tour, sucked up the gold that had nothing to do with paint.

For the 2017 Broadway revival, which opened Thursday night in New York after originating at the English National Opera, that archaic setting and all its attributes have, in essence, been replaced by Glenn Close.


Well, Close and her huge 41-piece orchestra, stuffed where Napier's magnificent folly once sat and now placed in the service of rendering Lloyd Webber's most nostalgic, sentimental score with maximum symphonic, even operatic, fullness — for fun, profit and, surely, the composer's legacy. The director, Lonny Price, and the set designer, James Noone, have to work around all of that, as well as keep the Napier design out of your head, although they do come up with a series of simple but effective platforms that allow Close to appear in the rafters and then descend to her people, thus making two entrances for double applause.

Norma Desmond has never been a role making a clarion call for subtlety. Dig too deep into the dramaturgy of "Sunset Boulevard" from our current vantage point and you run into all flavors of the problematic and the ridiculous, not the least of which is the characterization, more so than in the subtler Billy Wilder film, of the 50-year-old star as a pathetic fossil. She's 50! Young enough, these days, to audition for "Fifty Shades of Grey." Not that much older than her boy Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier). And this even as Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler), a minor but normative character here, continues to operate as a spring chicken on the Paramount lot, despite being old enough to be Norma's father.

So what is this really all about? Old-star disease? A tale of co-dependency with Max (the poignant, throbbing Fred Johanson), a husband turned manservant for reasons never fully discussed? A narrative of early onset dementia?

The notion that Norma badly needs to see a doctor, not a director, never was a useful line of inquiry with this stubborn musical, although it's worth noting that it's hard to imagine Christopher Hampton's book and lyrics being written now in this form.

It is certainly a sexist and ageist construction, grandmothered in, you might say. I suppose, if you wish to be charitable, you could argue that "Sunset" is a commentary on women in Hollywood — but Hampton and Lloyd Webber never really followed Wilder there. And Price is not about to take that on here either, any more than he is about to cast anybody who might pull too much focus from the star of the proceedings. Xavier is handsome, charming, melodic and just about cynical enough (although not much passion burns between him and Siobhan Dillon, who plays his love interest, Betty Schaeffer). But he demurs as necessary. He tells the story but without himself at the center.

Which brings us back to Close. The most remarkable thing about this performance, which comes nearly a quarter-century after Close first essayed the role, is not the grandeur. I've written that about women in this role — Patti LuPone, Linda Balgord, Elaine Paige — many times before. That's de rigueur. An opportunity. A prerequisite. And it's not about the vocal performance. Unlike some of those peers, Close is very much an actress first and a singer second. What makes this performance work is Close's palpable vulnerability. It's as simple as that, in a show that never has been simple.

Close is invested not so much in the magnitude of the character but her neediness. And that, of course, is far more interesting to watch on the stage than the antics of a diva. For it feels raw and true, and, most importantly of all, it taps into one of the key reasons this show always has had an outsized impact — the nightmare we all have of becoming the Norma Desmond of our own Sunset Boulevards, however minor our particular street. These days, older characters in musicals seen in relation to professions usually are penned as affirmative figures that lie to us about how we can go on and on, or at least be respected in our dotage.

Norma is a horror show. And what is great here is that Close assumes 50 shades of that which we never want to be.

Moreover, you easily believe that this Norma once was a silent-movie star, so rich and fearless is Close's archaic physicality. It's not a big leap from experiencing what happens to Norma at the Palace Theatre to worrying about not understanding Facebook or Instagram and thus being unable to get work. That is what makes this a fine performance. Close has all of her skin in the game. She stares down some demons as she grasps at poor Joe Gillis, longing for a comeback. It's a very tart and terrifying performance at the core of one of the more lush, sentimental and absurd musicals of the later 20th century, and it is quite magnificent.

"Sunset Boulevard" plays on Broadway at the Palace Theatre, Seventh Avenue and 47th Street, New York; 212-239-6200 or

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @ChrisJonesTrib


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