BWW Reviews: Smaller SUNSET BOULEVARD Still a Sumptuous Experience
It has been 20 years since Andew Lloyd Webber, Don Black and Christopher Hampton's SUNSET BOULEVARD made its West End premiere. Based on Billy Wilder's classic film, the show has a notorious history. The original Norma Desmond, Patti LuPone, sued Lloyd Webber when he unceremoniously dropped her from the United States premiere of the show and chose to cast Glenn Close in a revised version of the musical instead. Both versions of the show opened to mixed reviews, although revisions made in US version were seen as improvements, and despite healthy runs, the show could not sustain its exorbitant running costs and failed to deliver return on its financial investments. In fact, Peter Filichia named SUNSET BOULEVARD as the biggest flop of the 1994-1995 in his book BROADWAY MUSICALS: THE BIGGEST HIT AND THE BIGGEST FLOP OF THE SEASON.
Scaled down productions of SUNSET BOULEVARD started appearing at the turn of the century and a critically acclaimed revival in that style - which featured the added gimmick of the actors playing instruments as well as performing their roles - seemed to cement the formula when it comes to new productions of the show: simplify the design and let the grandeur of the material speak for itself. Fast forward to 2013, and South Africa finally has a production of SUNSET BOULEVARD to call its own.
SUNSET BOULEVARD tells the story of a cynical writer, Joe Gillis, who has fallen upon hard times. In desperate need of cash, ditched by his agent and unable to get Paramount Studios to buy a script from him, he stumbles across the Hollywood mansion of Norma Desmond, a movie star whose career faded when talkies were introduced. Since her fall from grace, Norma has been a recluse, with only a butler, Max, in attendance. Having filled her time by working on a screenplay of her own, for a film in which she plans to make a triumphant return to the pictures, she employs Joe to help her edit the final draft before sending it off to Paramount. While he works, Norma becomes obsessively dependant on Joe, who - at first reluctantly - uses her as a way to escape his 'one room hell'. But Joe does not count on falling for Betty Shaefer, the fiancé of his best friend, Artie, while they work together on a screenplay of their own.
The show has all the ingredients of a knockout melodrama and Black and Hampton's book remains remarkably faithful to Wilder's original screenplay. The excision of a couple of scenes from the film (notably one in which she plays cards with Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson and H.B. Warne, and another where she dresses up as Charlie Chaplin, identified by Filichia is the book cited above) serve to highlight Norma's isolation and tragedy. While those nips and tucks work for the musical, the book is a little languid in the second act, where it could use a little tightening to focus the downward spiral initiated at the end of the Act I. A great deal of time is spent developing the relationship between Joe and Betty and the overall effect is little different to that achieved with much more economy in the film.
Lloyd Webber's music separates the eclectic Hollywood settings and the abandoned mansion by infusing the former with a syncopated, jazzy tunes ("Let's Have Lunch" 'Every Movie's a Circus", "This Time Next Year"), and characterising the latter with an epic feel that evokes the past to which Norma clings so desperately ("Surrender", "With One Look", "The Perfect Year"). Black and Hampton's lyrics for the show have a rather poor reputation, but for the most part they work well. That is not to say the lyrics are without technical flaws, but they certainly capture tone and character well enough, and the transitions between book, recitative and song are smoothly executed.
Led by Anglea Kilian and Jonathan Roxmouth as Norma and Joe, the performers in SUNSET BOULEVARD are a skilled and dedicated company. Kilian already has several of the Lloyd Webber's diva roles under her belt, including Eva Peron (EVITA), Grizabella (CATS) and Rose (ASPECTS OF LOVE) and calls upon all of her resources as an actress in playing Norma. The role is arguably a greater challenge for her and the score a less comfortable fit for her voice than many of the parts she has played in the past, but Kilian delivers a performance that is spell-binding.
Roxmouth's performance is smartly low-key, a choice that capture's Joe's cynicism and also serves as a contrast to Norma's extremities. His normality allows us to see observe her descent into madness more clearly. His delivery of the show's title song is well-measured, as is the emotional journey in the role. By the time the final scenes swing around, the development of his character - who is, after all, the protagonist of the show - is captured well.