The new revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical "Sunset Boulevard" -- based in turn on Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film -- is one of those shows that sends audiences into ecstatic fits of applause, more for the idea of what they're watching than the actual experience of watching it.
The applause starts when the curtain rises, to reveal a forty-person orchestra onstage -- according to the producers, one of the largest in Broadway history. The mad clapping starts up again a few minutes later, when Glenn Close enters the proceedings, revisiting a role that twenty-two years ago won her the Tony. On the night I saw the show, even a single line of Close's dialogue -- the famous, "I am big, it's the pictures that got small" zinger -- generated a new round of cheers.
This isn't merely the fault of an overeager audience, though. Director Lonny Price and her lead actress seem determined to force you out of the moment, overloading the production with so many "Major Theatrical Event" moments and signposts that it all starts to sag beneath the weight of its own self-importance.
Methinks this musical -- not one of Lloyd Webber's best, but certainly far more engaging than what's on display here -- would have been better served by a little more humility and a lot more humanity.
First mounted on Broadway in 1994, "Sunset Boulevard" sticks close to its source material, the story of faded screen actress Norma Desmond (Close) and her determination to claw her way back into the spotlight with the help of a down-on-his-luck screenwriter (the confident and strong-voiced British actor Michael Xavier, the best thing about this revival).
The book and lyrics, by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, convey much of the cynical bite of Wilder's original -- an evisceration of Hollywood as a poisonous system that destroys everyone who even dares to submit to its machinations.Glenn Close plays Norma Desmond, the role Gloria Swanson made famous, in the musical version of "Sunset Boulevard." (Photo by Joan Marcus)Christopher Kelly | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
But none of the show's ideas -- about the cruelty of aging, or the desperation that results from failure -- have been allowed to breathe in this version, which originated at the English National Opera in London. Instead of resisting the camp and Gothic elements of Gloria Swanson's Norma -- who, 60-plus years later, only looks campier and more exaggerated -- Close fully embraces them. Her face stretched into a Kabuki mask of barely-hinged madness, every movement and gesture stylized, she pushes the performance into the realm of kitsch. Even when she belts out the show's beautiful arias, "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" -- and, at age 69, Close can still belt with the best of them -- we experience the songs as distant spectacle, not the emotional eruptions of a flesh-and-blood character.
The production is ravishingly beautiful, all the more impressive considering that the orchestra occupies much of the stage, leaving a minimum amount of space for the actors and sets. But set designer James Noone and lighting designer Mark Henderson show great economy in bringing to life Norma's dilapidated mansion, the Paramount back lot, and even a car chase through the streets of Hollywood.
I'm just not sure why the producers went to such bother. Lloyd Webber's score is less brash, more elegantly poignant than his other work -- but it's hardly at the level of, say, Bernstein's "West Side Story" or Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific," in terms of demanding this near-symphonic treatment. And -- unlike most actors returning to iconic parts -- Close seems less interested in discovering new nuances in her character than going full-blown, epic-scale diva on us and soaking up the adulation during her multiple curtain calls.Sunset Boulevard
1564 7th Avenue, New York
Tickets: $79 - $165; available online at www.ticketmaster.com. Through June 25.
Christopher Kelly may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chriskelly74. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.
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