Sunset Boulevard at the London Coliseum is the ENO’s second West End musical production in two years, and it’s a force to be reckoned with.
Similarly to last year’s Sweeney Todd, here Sunset is only semi-staged, meaning that while the set we knew so well from the original Patti Lupone production has long been banished, there’s some clever new tricks in play to evoke both the glamour and gloominess of the classic story. In principle, the set is simply two criss-crossing, scaffold-like staircases, which traverse the stage and encase the orchestra – onstage for the entire production, led by Michael Reed – seemingly meant to embody the backlot of Paramount Studios, where our tale begins.
But it is through the clever use of lighting and the occasional prop – a writing desk, a sofa, tables and chairs – that we find ourselves transported to the various locales of the narrative: a thrilling car chase, Schwab’s diner, Artie Greene’s apartment, and, of course, Norma Desmond’s (Glenn Close) dilapidated mansion on Sunset Blvd.
The minimalism works well, allowing the audience to instead imagine the idiosyncrasies that make up the scenes – particularly at the house on Sunset. When, at a New Year’s Eve party, Joe (Michael Xavier) marvels at what they’ve done with the place, fairy lights twinkling up above, you can only imagine the usual desolation of the house.
Xavier himself is on fine form as Joe. From the opening bars of the show, it’s clear we are in capable hands with this narrator, and while he’s far too handsome to be truly believable as a down-and-out writer, his charisma, smoothness and charm work wonders, especially in the second act, where Joe begins to become as twisted as his tormentor.
The rest of the cast make a fine ensemble, too. The minimal but necessary song and dance numbers make for a welcomed shift in tone from the subtle darkness of the scenes on Sunset, and this bright-eyed, hypnotic crew are so tight and poised, it’s clear they’re having a ball. Special mention also has to go to Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaefer, whose tone and clarity is so sharp and clear, it’s a wonder she hasn’t made more of her previous leading lady status.
And so we come to Ms. Close as Norma Desmond, the real draw, of course, however you look at it. In one scene, while editing the script for Norma’s ill-advised comeback (or, “return”, as she puts it), Joe tries to cut a scene featuring the deluded star, to which she quips, “Cut away from me? But what else have they come for?” – and one can’t help but note the irony with this production and the woman playing Norma before you.
Close originated the role on Broadway in 1994, and while it’s been over two decades since she played the part, she’s still got it in spades. Her voice isn’t without faults, but such vulnerability is actually in-keeping with the unhinged neurosis of the character, so it works; and, when it really matters – during With One Look, the last verse of As If We Never Said Goodbye, and that very final note in particular – Close magnificently delivers.
Aside from the musical numbers (although within them, as well), Close is a powerhouse. Her face twists and turns from malformed manipulator to giddy, school-girlish charmer, highlighting both the instability of Norma’s character and her own prowess as such a stunning actress, so that it becomes apparent as to why she is so revered as an enduring star.
Simply put, chances to see someone like Glenn Close live on stage don’t come often – this show, in fact, marks her West End debut – so even without the shining, beatific reviews, it’s already the hottest ticket in town; nonetheless, it’s worth the accolades, and you’d be a fool to miss it.
Sunset Boulevard is now showing at the London Coliseum until Saturday 7 May 2016. Get your tickers here.