BWW Reviews: Smaller SUNSET BOULEVARD Still a Sumptuous Experience

Angela Kilian in SUNSET BOULEVARD, with Jonathan Roxmouth in the background
Angela Kilian in SUNSET BOULEVARD,
with Jonathan Roxmouth in the background
Photo credit: Val Adamson

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.

Jonathan Roxmouth in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Jonathan Roxmouth in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Photo credit: Val Adamson

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.

Jonathan Roxmouth and Angela Kilian in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Jonathan Roxmouth and Angela
Photo credit: Val Adamson

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.

As Max, James Borthwick makes the most of his second act scenes, delivering work that is vastly better and more nuanced than his performance in Act I, where he comes across more as a grumpier version of Carson from DOWNTON ABBEY than as a man with mysterious links to Norma's past. This largely has to do with a stilted and pitchy delivery of "The Greatest Star of All," a number during which any actor playing Max has to establish a great deal if his role in the piece is to snap into focus.

Betty can be something of a throwaway role, but Bethany Dickson layers the part with a steely veneer that crumbles to reveal a vulnerable young woman who is surprised by the turns her life takes in the show. Her delivery of Betty's songs is flawless.

The ensemble features some superb playing in the supporting roles. Kyle Grant is a sincere and grounded Artie, while Bianca de Klerk impresses with her belty alto in a number of small roles. Mike Huff switches easily from the gravitas of real-life figure, Cecil B De Mille, to the lightness of Manfred, a men's outfitter sold on selling vicuna coats and Dean Roberts is a suitably acerbic Sheldrake. Taryn Sudding, Candice van Listenborgh, Claire Taylor, Stephen Jubber, Rhys Williams, Steven van Wyk, Bronwyn Reddy and Michele la Trobe make an invaluable contribution in bringing SUNSET BOULEVARD to life on stage.

Jonathan Roxmouth and James Borthwick in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Jonathan Roxmouth and James
Photo credit: Val Adamson

Paul Warwick Griffin's direction of SUNSET BOULEVARD is immersive, drawing the audience into the studio backlots, drugstores and celebrity palazzos of Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first act is particularly arresting, with its busy set pieces at Paramount and in Schwab's Drugstore.

In the original production the first act closed with the stage split horizontally in two, with Norma and Max at the house on Sunset and everyone else seeing in the New Year at Artie's apartment, one set suspended mid-air over the other. With one set suspended over the other, Joe's existence in these two contrasting worlds was superbly juxtaposed. In this production, one scene happens inside the other, underlining Joe's dilemma and Norma's anguish with the partygoers' abandon even further. It is a key moment that shows how good drama does not rely on spectacle and which justifies the "bonsai" approach that has been used so successfully on other big musicals at Theatre on the Bay in recent years, including CHESS, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and EVITA.

One aspect in which the physical staging of the show falters is in David Gouldie's choreography, which peaks in the "Let's Have Lunch" sequence that follows the prologue, where at least the company's energy makes up for the generic steps. Barring a brief tango for Norma and Joe late in the first act, the rest is mostly forgettable or - as in the case of "The Lady's Paying" where most of the humour is tied up in tired stereotypes - best forgotten.

Bethany Dickson and Jonathan Roxmouth in SUNSET BOULEVARD
Bethany Dickson and Jonathan
Photo credit: Val Adamson

The musical supervision and direction by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Louis Zurnamer respectively play a huge part in this production's success. The score sounds phenomenal under their collective batons and completely evokes the world in which the tragedy of SUNSET BOULEVARD is played out. Denis Hutchinson's set and lighting design and Penny Simpson's costumes similarly help to build the audience's belief in the world created onstage. Hutchinson's set is versatile and makes use of an aerial revolve that upon which is hung a ream of translucent cloth that also serves as a screen for some expertly designed video projections by Catherine Daymond.

Pieter Toerien and The Really Useful Group's SUNSET BOULEVARD adds further weight to the argument that smaller productions of the show can offer just as sumptuous an experience as a full-scale mega-musical approach to the material. One of the most fully realised musicals seen onstage in South Africa this year, only the Fugard Theatre's THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW offering any serious competition for bragging rights as the best musical theatre production of the season and, when awards season arrives in Cape Town, it will be exciting to see the two shows square off against one another for nominations and prizes in the musical theatre categories at the Fleur du Caps.

SUNSET BOULEVARD runs at Theatre on the Bay until early January 2014. Tickets can be booked through Computicket.

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