Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” is at The Playhouse Theatre for one week only (Tuesday 3rd to Saturday 7th October), and like the 1950 film on which it is based starring Gloria Swanson and William Holden, this stage musical adaption is a classic in its own right.
Originally opening in London in 1993, Sunset Boulevard received a mixed reception from the public and critics alike, and with some revisions to its story line the 1994 musical stage production went on to a solid run of over three years and then over the course of time the huge success that the production now is.
This stage musical version of “Sunset Boulevard” with book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton (with additional lyrics by Amy Powers) and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber wisely sticks very closely to the original film. With Andrew Lloyd Webber at the height of his creativity, Sunset Boulevard is to me one of his best works.
Our story of course, centres around the secluded and delusional world of former silent movie star Norma Desmond and her planned, but ultimately disastrous attempt to return to the “silver screen”. Norma Desmond was always a blend of many possible source models – Norma Talmadge, Mae Murray, Mary Pickford and Pola Negri are a few mentioned over the years. Ria Jones somehow manages to capture a little of all of these great silent movie stars in her portrayal of Norma Desmond here, and it is a classic performance up there with the original film one. Ria is outstanding with her performance of the musical numbers here, particularly on the classic “As If We Never Said Goodbye”, but it is an impressive dramatic role by Ria as Norma that underpins and holds everything together here. Ria captures the self imposed exile of her character and her fragile and declining mental state as the thin veil between her delusions and the reality of the outside world disappears and her sanity, like what is left of her once bright shining star of fame, implodes with catastrophic effects. Ria Jones knows how to sing and emote a song. She understands that sometimes a whisper is actually far more powerful than vocal power and volume (although Ria can do this too). Norma’s songs are all about human emotions and human frailty, and in this performance it is obvious that Ria understands and connects completely with them.
Danny Mac is a very good Joe Gillis and, like Ria, brings not only musical and dramatic skills to this performance, but is a perfect counter balance to Norma Desmond, and his dilemma between accepting the luxury that Norma can bring to him that he can never himself afford whilst at the same time wanting to return to the “real world” and the “real friends” that he has is part of the tension that keeps this story moving along.
Max Von Meyerling, Norma’s devoted man-servant and conspirator in keeping the Norma Desmond legend alive (unknown to Norma) is played with great style and a powerful physical presence by Adam Pearce. The devotion to Norma by Max is itself a great devotional love story that could be opened up easily into its own stage production, and Adam gets the balance of his character just right. He also displays some impressive vocals on his songs with a huge vocal range that you do not come across very often.
Our other main character, budding script writer Betty Schaefer is well defined by Molly Lynch. Molly has some great musical numbers here, but also brings an air of lightness to what is in the end a very dark story of obsessive control and obsessive love of another human being. The contrast between Betty and Norma is like night and day, and this can at times make Betty’s character feel like it belongs in a far happier story.
Sunset Boulevard is a stylish production from start to finish. Every area of this production has had huge attention to detail and sets, lighting, costume, sound and on stage projections all come together to make a great theatrical experience for the audience. One of my favourite scenes to illustrate just how well thought out all of this is a scene in diner/bar where the film of a late 1940s street scene with passing vehicles projected behind the glass fronted set gives the illusion of looking out of the glass windows onto a period street scene. It is a little moment where the expense of doing this could so easily have been avoided, but it has not. This willingness of spending the money to create a believable world of the late 1940s Hollywood and Paramount Pictures as a studio at the time is obvious in every element of this production.
Review by Tom King