Today was a rare treat – a half day off work to see a weekday matinee! Having missed Glenn Close on stage in New York in 2014 due to my ankle injury, there was no way I was missing her West End debut as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical of Sunset Boulevard, a role Close is already familiar with, having played her on Broadway 22 years ago, earning her a Tony Award. With this run being so short (only 5 weeks until 7th May) I was excited to have a ticket to one of the year’s most anticipated shows.
Did it live up to my hopes? In short, yes it certainly did. I had never seen the show before, only being familiar with some of the songs I’ve heard from it over the years and decided not to read anything more before seeing the production. It is a show that I very much enjoyed and one which conjures a magic and mood of a bygone era through its story and musical numbers.
The staging is very different to any other musical that I’ve seen. Described as a “semi-staged” production, there is minimal set on the large Coliseum stage, with all locations, from Norma’s palazzo on the Boulevard to the back lot at Paramount Studios existing within a metallic staircase and walkway structure. At the centre of this is the full 48 piece English National Opera Orchestra (the orchestra pit instead used for lighting and a swimming pool in Act 2). This was quite different from the usual musical theatre experience of large sets and glitz and I found it quite refreshing.
I heard some grumbling about the lack of a sumptuous set from some audience members but, in my view, this stripped back staging only added to the authenticity of Norma’s existence – in a world which is tragically quite empty and lonely and the acting and glorious score, which sounds superb from an orchestra of this quality, bring the settings to life in your mind as you watch. Projections of black and white images and video reels from the period, occasionally projected on to the safety style curtain and backdrop also add to creating a sense that this is a production from years ago.
As for the acting, above all this is Glenn Close’s show and she is superb as Norma, a tragic character who was once adored by so many and who cannot see that her star has faded. I couldn’t help but be moved by her and Close manages to convey over the course of the story, a woman who can be cruel and manipulative, but is ultimately emotionally fragile and vulnerable and who spirals in to her own world of the past, oblivious to the reality of how things have changed. She was certainly a character for whom I felt sadness and compassion, as it was easy to imagine myself growing older, perhaps looking back to better, happier times. In this respect Norma resonates with us all. We will all grow older and life will change, sometimes in ways we would not choose.
Also despite the passage of 20 years, Close is still able to deliver a vocally confident performance. There are times when her voice isn’t as strong as it perhaps was, but this is ideal for portraying a fading starlet like Norma. However, in songs such as the emotional “With One Look” Close’s vocal performance is incredibly powerful and I was impressed that it wasn’t overwhelmed by the large orchestra on stage with her.
Supporting her, Fred Johanson is wonderful as Norma’s ever present companion Max, who clearly deeply loves her and out of love is (perhaps unwisely) maintaining her illusion of stardom. Johanson’s background in opera adds an extra layer of power, beauty and delicacy to his performance. I also enjoyed Michael Xavier’s portrayal of Joe Gillis. His is not an easy role, as Joe isn’t a hugely likeable character at times. You do feel sorry for his sense of being trapped by Norma’s manipulative behaviour, but equally dislike his more hurtful behaviour towards her (which is perhaps a testament to Close’s performance). However, Xavier has a charm which works well for the character, especially in the early scenes as we see Norma drawn to him and then in his scenes with Siobhan Dillon’s Betty, the woman who may come between Norma and her boy. In fact the cast as a whole is impressive and brings the show to life wonderfully in this all too short run.
I certainly wasn’t disappointed by Sunset Boulevard and if the long standing ovation given at today’s matinee is any indication, neither was the rest of the audience. Having the chance to see what will be a performance remembered for years, together with the unique experience of seeing its musical score brought to life by musicians on the stage in front of you (rather than hidden in the pit) was fantastic. For me, a musical has to have a story that I invest in emotionally, some memorable songs and strong characters. This production of Sunset Boulevard has all of these elements and I’ll almost certainly be making a return trip before it ends. If you have the chance to go, then don’t miss it.
Sunset Boulevard continues its run at the London Coliseum until 7th May 2016. For more information and ticket availability visit the official website here. It’s also worth having a look at other ticket outlets for cheaper tickets, such as the TodayTix app.