Review: ‘Sunset Boulevard’ at The Palace Theatre

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The Palace Theatre is back in business with a big time headliner on the bill. It’s Glenn Close, returning to the role of Norma Desmond, direct from her recent great success in it at London’s Coliseum Theatre, where she made her London debut. Ms. Close originally played the role  on Broadway in 1994, and now, 23 years later, she is Norma once again.

An iconic character, a silent film star in luxurious and much resented retirement, she finds in Joe Gillis an unemployed writer whom she imagines to be her savior, and after moving him into her mansion she proceeds to destroy them both, motivated as she is by her insatiable demand for attention, for control, for a return to the royal ranks from which she once drew the very breath of life. From the moment she appears at the top of a skeletal staircase, she is in full command, earning one round of welcoming applause at the top, and another at the bottom as she moves into the room in which she mistakes Gillis for the undertaker she’s been expecting to bury her beloved pet chimpanzee. Head high, magnificent peignoir floating behind her, we know we are in for an evening in the presence of a very special lady.

Glenn Close (Norma Desmond) and Michael Xavier (Joe Gillis). Photo by Joan Marcus.

Director Lonny Price has come up with a daring new production concept, very different from the original. Anthony Powell’s costume designs for his star are magnificent, and help define her. The set and lighting designers James Noone and Mark Henderson have put mere suggestions into Desmond’s incredible relic of a mansion, by using variations of staircases that serve to back a soundstage, a New Year’s Eve party of the young people at the Paramount Studio, and anywhere else the story takes her. He’s left room for a magnificent chauffeur driven Isotta Fraschini town car to take her to the studio for a meeting with Cecil B. DeMille, and makes good use of film shots of roadways and trees and lights to give us the feel of that section of Hollywood into which La Desmond has become entombed.

Andrew Lloyd Webber has given her lush melodies, and Don Black’s and Christopher Hampton’s lyrics rise to the occasion whenever she bursts into song. “With One Look” and “The Perfect Year” in the first act and “As if We Never Said Goodbye” in the second, offer her size and scope; and Ms.Close, with 23 years of life behind her since she first sang them most effectively in her first crack at them, now rises to Olympian heights with them. Her return to her beloved studio on what turns out to be a fool’s mission, is so clearly meaningful to her, that she brings us to tears as we buy into her vulnerability and she reveals how deeply scarred she is. She gives an epic performance from start to finish, and reminds us just how powerful such great work can be. Without words or music, her face alone speaks volumes when a stagehand from her past lights her face with a follow spot, transforming a middle aged woman into a youngster with big dreams.

Glenn Close (Norma Desmond. Photo by Joan Marcus.

I’ll remember Glenn Close as Norma Desmond just as I still hear the sounds of Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, Gertrude Lawrence in Lady In The Dark, Robert Preston in The Music Man and a dozen other iconic performances over the many seasons I’ve been out front watching. The story of Sunset Boulevard is solid, but its supporting characters are not written with the same perception and depth of its leading lady. Joe Gillis and the young lady who catches his eye as he spends some time with his contemporaries at the studio have less help from the score than does Norma Desmond. There are some 36 musical numbers and though Mr. Webber’s melodies are magnificently played by a lush and lovely 40-piece orchestra, the Black-Hampton lyrics are simply not up to the three or four best ones.

A fourth principal character is Max Von Mayerling, Desmond’s first husband and now constant companion and butler, has only one major number, “Greatest Star of All” and it’s beautifully sung by Fred Johanson, but Michael Xavier and Siobhan Dillon, cannot do more than overcome the simplicity of their musical material.

Michael Xavier (Joe Gillis) and Siobhan Dillon (Betty Schaefer). Photo by Joan Marcus.

With Norma there, you’re in for a treat if you manage to get a seat during the 15-week limited run. Glenn Close has magic to do, and she knows just how to spread it around.

Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with an intermission.

Sunset Boulevard plays through June 25, 2017, at The Palace Theatre –  1564 Broadway, in New York City. For tickets, call Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000, or purchase them online.

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