In Act II of the current revival of Sunset Boulevard, faded silent movie star Norma Desmond (Glenn Close) returns to the lot of Paramount studios where, years prior, she was an adored actress. As she looks around in stunned amazement, she launches into one of the musical’s most well-known numbers, As If We Never Said Good-bye. The song captures the emotion of a celebrity who wears spotlight like a warm winter coat and is ecstatic to be basking in it once again. Close, who won the Tony for her role in the 1994 staging is back on the boards, chewing the scenery and commanding the stage like the true professional that she is.
However, the gold has tarnished a bit on the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and Desmond feels significantly smaller than her reputation would have you believe. This is in no way due to Ms. Close, who is tasked with carrying the weight of this production on her able shoulders. Instead, fingers should point to set designer James Noone, who has not given our leading lady much of a playground.
But first, let’s look at the backstory. Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) is a broke screenwriter whose car breaks down near the home of Norma Desmond. Gillis stumbles into the home and realizes who resides there. He quickly learns that the lady of the house has written a new screenplay based on Salome. Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler) will direct. Gillis is alarmed by the fact that her screenplay is dreadful and soon embarks on a journey to assist her with the script. Powerless, he “can’t help being touched by her folly” and moves in with her and her overprotective butler, Max Von Mayerling (Fred Johanson). Max and Norma, we find out, were once lovers but now Norma’s affections point in the direction of Joe, who sneaks out of the apartment for a tryst with Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon).
Desmond’s delirium is the ultimate derailed diva train for any actress and Close remains at the top of her game. Joining her for this corrosive ride are Johanson, whose woebone constitution for his lot in life and his reminiscence of his long ago flame are heart-rending. Xavier captures the cynicism and ambition of a Hollywood go-getter. Dillon does a fine job, though the role lacks heft in comparison to others. For all intents and purposes, every role pales next to Desmond, who demands attention at every turn.
Which is why it’s such a pity to see such a grand Dame occupy such a sparse space. Lloyd Webber and his British theatrical colleagues, producer Cameron Macintosh, ushered in the era of spectacle in the eighties with Phantom, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, and Sunset Boulevard. In the original production, John Napier’s Victorian house engulfed the stage and while such displays of grandeur rarely equate to quality storytelling, it feels essential here. Everything about Desmond is over the top and theatrical. In this version, all else, aside from her overbearing persona is gone.
What is not lacking are the marvelous musicians, conducted under the masterful baton of Kristen Blodgette. This is currently the largest orchestra on Broadway right now (and the biggest one in 80 years). From the haunting overture to the final scene, their glorious strains are alone, worth the price of a ticket.
For many, the classic movie and original production of Sunset Boulevard hold nostalgic value. While there may be a sense of disappointment in Ms. Desmond’s living situation, there is still enough effectiveness to merit a visit to this plastic land of superficial celluoid.
Sunset Boulevard at Broadway’s Palace Theater (47th and 7th Ave.), NYC. Through June 25th. For tickets and information, visit the box office or click here.