The former X Factor judge proves that her casting as Norma Desmond was a brilliant move all along
To anyone who might have doubted Nicole Scherzinger’s casting as Norma Desmond… well, that’s understandable. The 45-year-old is a far cry from faded, appearing to us onstage with black hair falling over her shoulders, in a black satin slip, eyes wide and face chiseled. Her love affair with the camera is not over on either side – we see her through its lens, as she is intermittently filmed live onstage and projected against the backdrop. It loves her. She flirts with it. The audience are charmed. “Past her prime” does not feel applicable.
It’s an interesting take on Desmond, possibly polarising, but ultimately brilliant. Scherzinger’s Desmond is egregiously un-faded, undeniably striking… but also not twenty years old anymore. It feels even crueler that this still young and beautiful starlet could be told by Hollywood that she is not young and beautiful enough – and also depressingly real.
Scherzinger knows that there has been doubt around this casting choice. She, along with the entire production, leans into it. She delivers Instagram-worthy pouts to both the camera and the audience, always sure to shoot the lens an extra look over her shoulder as she exits stage, usually to laughter. Director Jamie Lloyd even sneaks in a Pussycat Dolls Easter egg. But despite all this, Scherzinger is no satirical, tongue-in-cheek take on the central character – she is Norma Desmond. Her introductory solo ‘With One Look’ is pure yearning and brings the house down. When she watches herself play Joan of Arc, live footage of Hannah Yun Chamberlain as a young Norma fades out to reveal Scherzinger’s enraptured face, in a sequence impossible to look away from.
This use of a live feed to a giant screen behind the actors is another stroke of brilliance. Soutra Gilmour and Jack Knowles’ design does plenty to immerse us in this film noir already, with a set that looks like part of a soundstage – not that we are often able to see it, as the stage is usually so smoky it’s a wonder the actors are able to sing through it. The effect is admittedly gorgeous, allowing the performers to materialize seamlessly out of the haze and disappear quietly back into it. It’s the camerawork, however, that transports us. These closeups of the actors, shown in black and white, make the whole feel far more intimate than an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical at the Savoy Theatre has any right to be.
There’s a wealth of talent in the young cast: Tom Francis’ Joe and Grace Hodgett Young’s Betty are both excellent, and David Thaxton plays the doting Max Von Mayerling with gripping and occasionally hilarious intensity. But for all that is new and surprising about Jamie Lloyd’s Sunset Boulevard, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s words that remain touchstones of excellence. It would be hard to stage a production of it that didn’t feel gloriously cinematic.