I always enjoy pointing out that when Glenn Close was in her early acting days I was impressed with an off-Broadway performance I saw and wrote an article titled “It’s Time for Glenn Close.” Attention was due her and she rightly was to become an established star. Once again she is proving her exceptional talent by returning to Broadway in a role in which she excelled before, that of the desperate, faded movie actress Norma Desmond. Close is sensational in the role on many counts and deserves every bit of the prolonged ovations she is getting in this English National Opera production.
Actually there were two ovations in the Palace Theatre on the night I saw the revival of “Sunset Boulevard.” Before the show started Hillary Clinton was spotted walking down an aisle to her seat and Palace exploded with applause and audience members rising to get a look at her. This is New York, solid Clinton territory, and the adulation showed, probably both in appreciation of her and anti-Trump.
The show, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and book and lyrics by Don Black ad Christopher Hampton based on the Billy Wilder film, begins impressively with visuals suggesting the Hollywood scene. The production aspect of the musical is a key part of its success. The overall set (design by James Noone) suggests the Paramount Pictures studio, with other locations turning up within it. Great use is made of projection, including some vintage clips, to broaden the effect and also suggest a geographical area beyond the studio. The orchestra, doing justice to the score, is on stage in the background.
The book follows the plot of the film closely. The opening has handsome Michael Xavier as writer Joe Gillis launching the story while his corpse is seen at the side of the stage after he has been shot and killed by Desmond. The back story takes off, and Xavier is excellent throughout as we see him seizing the opportunity to earn money that he desperately needs by working on Desmond’s massive screenplay which feeds her illusion that it will return her to stardom. He also succumbs to becoming a kept man and the object of her love even though he deeply resents the situation.
When Desmond first is seen, the effect is dramatic, and Close plays the entrance to the hilt and follows through with a performance that is dazzling whether she is acting or singing. Her number “With One Look” is a dynamic mixture of pride and hope, and is a highlight of the show. When Desmond dramatically visits the studio in belief that her film will be made, Close is brilliantly touching as she makes us feel deeply for her. It is a prime scene that comes off poignantly as well as evoking the old days with people who remember her and newcomers who don’t. Paul Schoeffler plays director Cecil B. DeMille with deference and care not to hurt Desmond’s feelings.
Other praiseworthy performances are by Fred Johanson as Max von Mayerling, Desmond’s loyal and protective ex-husband, the role played in the film by Erich von Stroheim. Siobhan Dillon is appealing as Betty Schaeffer, who falls in love with Gillis. The many singers and dancers add immeasurably to the musical's breadth and color.
Lonny Price as director knows exactly how to showcase Close, positioning her front and center at key moments and allowing her maximum opportunity to engage and win over her audience. Price also manages to skillfully pull together the disparate elements of the action to give the musical the needed scope.
The strong, pulsating score adds intensity, but I have to say that I find the sing-song rhythm and tonality of dialogue in various recitative passages annoying. But that is a quibble. This is a hugely entertaining musical and a chance to enjoy the artistry of Glenn Close at the height of her stage power. At the Palace Theatre, 1564 Broadway. Phone: 877-250-2929. Reviewed February 15, 2017.