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Thursday, February 9, 2017

Glenn Close is Norma Desmond again


Sunset Boulevard, Twisting boulevard
Secret of the rich, A little scary
Sunset Boulevard, Tempting boulevard
Waiting there to swallow the unwary

Don Black & Christopher Hampton, lyricists

Old Hollywood has made a return trip to NYC, with 47th and Broadway transforming into LA's Sunset Boulevard for a few weeks, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical is revived for a limited run.  Starring in the role that brought her a Tony 20 years ago, is Glenn Close.  I was thrilled to be able to catch a preview last weekend.

In the mid-1990s Lloyd Webber embarked upon an ambitious project--to give the classic story Sunset Boulevard the operatic treatment. As a musical, it follows very closely the plot and script of Billy Wilder's 1950 film noir masterpiece starring Gloria Swanson, William Holden, and Erich von Stroheim.  (I remember seeing a touring version of the musical, then, in Cincinnati, before I really knew much about the film and certainly before I became a classic film enthusiast.) The English National Opera revived it last year with a semi-staged production directed by Lonny Price, and Close was engaged to reprise her success, along with a supporting cast of stellar singing actors.  The same production and cast opened today on Broadway.  With the old Hollywood image projections, the bright colors and sounds, and star power, sitting there in the audience I felt a connection to my recent experiences of the Turner Classic Movie Film Festival.  
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond (from
The musical would not make the impression it does without the orchestra.  This production featured unusually large orchestra by Broadway standards --40 pieces-- which was situated on stage, doubling as the Paramount orchestra during the scene at the famous studio.  At times I was worried the actors would knock over some of the musicians, they got so close, running back and forth across the expanse of the stage.  Yet no such disaster happened, the players never broke character, and they made a wonderful sound throughout.  The multi-level set was minimalist, but made ample use of image projection on a partially opaque screen, dramatic contrast lighting, movable furniture, and the occasional luxury automobile.  Costumes appropriately evoked the late 1940s with Ms. Close's costumes particularly flowing and glittery and spectacular.  
Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, Siobhan Dillon as Betty, and
Fred Johanson as Max
Ms. Close delivered a nuacned portrayal despite her ability to dominate the stage.  Interviewed for Playbill magazine, she discussed how she feels differently about the character now, after 20 more years of life experience, and had reached back once again to the film for inspiration.  It seemed to me she projected considerable world weariness, perhaps more than Gloria Swanson did in the film, which isn't a criticism of either portrayal.  As mentioned, her costumes were appropriately over the top; in the Paramount scene, her strikingly black and white ensemble was in direct contrast to the earth tones of the rehearsing movie actors, making it all the more obvious how she really no longer belonged in 'modern' Hollywood.

The rest of the cast was first rate.  Michael Xavier had youthful swagger as Joe Gillis, and Siobhan Dillon was perky and believable as Betty Schaefer.   I especially enjoyed Fred Johanson as Max, who despite looking like a cross between Erich von Stroheim and Nosferatu (!), had an incredibly powerful and resonant bass voice.  All the best lines from the film were there, and, judging by the audience response, were eagerly anticipated, and greatly appreciated.  A standing ovation greeted the cast at the end.  If that was any indication, this Broadway run should be big.

A few snapshots of the set:

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