Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD at The Princess Theatre

Sunset Boulevard is playing at The Princess Theatre through to August.

By: Jun. 02, 2024
Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD at The Princess Theatre
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Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment’s revival of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, showcases a fantastic five-star Australian cast, led by Tim Draxl. This production also features a decadent and lavish set and costume design by Morgan Large, sharp and electric choreography by Ashley Wallen, excellent musical direction from Paul Christ, and a stunning lighting design by Mark Henderson. However, this production is let down creatively through ‘below par’ direction by Paul Warwick Griffin and the miscasting of Sarah Brightman as Norma Desmond. As a result, the overall star rating of this production of Sunset Boulevard averages out at 3.5 Stars.

Sunset Boulevard is based on the classic 1950’s film noir picture of the same name, which starred Williams Holden as struggling writer, Joe Gillis, and Gloria Swanson as faded silent-film star, Norma Desmond. The film of Sunset Boulevard received critical acclaim when it opened in 1950, resulting in 11 Academy Awards, and it is often now referred to as a film classic. Sunset Boulevard’s story about passion and crime in Hollywood begins which the audience being introduced to Joe Gillis who is financially struggling. Through fate, Joe finds himself entering the lavish mansion of Norma Desmond, and like a fly caught in a spider’s web, Joe becomes entangled in Norma’s life and enchanted by her wealth. This results in disastrous consequences for both characters. The film Sunset Boulevard is perhaps best known to the public through Norma Desmonds’s famous line “Mr. Demille, I’m ready for my close-up”, a line which is often misquoted.

Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard first premièred on the West End in July 1993 with direction by Trevor Nunn, choreography by Bob Avian and with Patti LuPone starring as Norma Desmond. It received mixed reviews. The musical then transferred the same year to Los Angeles, opening in December 1993 with Glenn Close as Norma Desmond. Close also opened the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard in November 1994. However, as reported by the Los Angeles Times on 24th June 1994, LuPone had originally been contracted to open the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard, which resulted in LuPone suing Lloyd Webber, and a legal settlement resulting. The Los Angeles Times article also highlights that when Close was leaving the Los Angeles production for Broadway, she was meant to be replaced by Faye Dunaway. However, once rehearsals started, the producers became so concerned regarding Dunaway’s singing, they opted to close the Los Angeles production, instead of letting her perform! This was despite over US $4 million in advanced ticket sales. As reported by The New York Times on 17th January 1995, this resulted in Dunaway also suing and then settling with Lloyd Webber. The casting of the role of Norma Desmond, therefore, appears to have a disharmonious history.

Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD at The Princess Theatre
Tim Draxl and Sarah Brightman
Photo by Daniel Boud

The current Australian revival of Sunset Boulevard seems inadvertently to have continued controversy around the casting of the role of Norma Desmond. In this current production, world renowned soprano, Sarah Brightman, headlines the Musical as the faded silent film star, Norma Desmond. Brightman is likely known to most musical theatre fans as the original Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera. While Brightman does have a three-octave vocal range, she is not known as a strong character performer or a strong ‘belter’, both of which really are crucial for the role of Norma Desmond.  As Brightman has also not appeared on stage theatrically in over 30 years, it does need to be questioned why the creative team and/or producers cast Brightman in a role she is not suited to. Particularly given that this production’s ‘alternate Norma Demond’ is one of Australia’s most gifted singers, Silvie Paladino.

Paul Warwick Griffin’s direction of this production of Sunset Boulevard did not do Sarah Brightman any favours. There were multiple times where onstage blocking appeared clunky, particularly at pivotal moments such as the end of act one and two. Brightman’s blocking also seemed to include bizarre moments when she would enter briefly in one costume, leave after a couple of minutes, and then re-enter in another costume. While this was due to a new scene, these rather ‘random’ exits and entrances did seem superfluous, given that they did nothing to advance the Show’s narrative.

Perhaps my biggest confusion with this iteration of Sunset Boulevard, is the apparent lack of justification for why Warwick Griffin’s adaptation is entrenched with theatrical conservatism? In isolation this comment may appear harsh. However, given a brave new modern and minimalist revival of Sunset Boulevard opened on the West End in late 2023 to rave reviews, I am unsure why another more conservative and traditional production is needed? The daring and contemporary West End production of Sunset Boulevard, which was directed by Jamie Lloyd, features a well needed ‘nip and tuck’ to the musical's book, won seven Olivier Awards this year and is set to open on Broadway in September. As a result, I feel disappointed that Australian audiences, including myself, are getting Warwick Griffin’s more traditional interpretation of Sunset Boulevard, which if I am honest, does feel like an attempt to ‘reinvent the wheel’.

Review: SUNSET BOULEVARD at The Princess Theatre
Tim Draxl 
Photo by Daniel Boud

Despite not loving Warwick Griffin’s more traditional revival of Sunset Boulevard, it cannot be disputed that the Australian cast in this current production, are exceptionally good. Tim Draxl seems born to play the role of Joe Gillis. Draxl’s singing is superb, with his rendition of the title song ‘Sunset Boulevard’ being remarkable. Ashleigh Rubenach as Betty Schaefer should also be congratulated for a strong performance, her vocals and acting were spot on. Robert Grubb as Max Von Mayerling and Jarrod Draper as Artie Green were well cast, both of whom gave dynamic performances with excellent vocals. The ensemble were all strong, with Dean Vince as Manfred being particularly compelling. Sunset Boulevard’s score and orchestrations are sublime and worth coming along to hear, particularly given that this show’s orchestra execute them perfectly, under the musical direction of Paul Christ and musical supervision of Kristen Blodgette. Despite me craving a more cutting edge, contemporary approach to Sunset Boulevard, it cannot be disputed that given the ‘traditional musical theatre’ brief, Morgan Large’s set and costume design, Ashley Wallen’s choreography and Mark Henderson’s lighting design are all first-rate.

Sunset Boulevard is playing at The Princess Theatre through to August and then transferring to the Sydney Opera House where the Musical will be playing through to November.


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