1. Actors onstage in Sunset Boulevard
    Photograph: Daniel Boud
  2. Sarah Brightman as Norma Desmond looks alarmed holding a telephone
    Photograph: Daniel Boud
  3. Tim Draxl singing in Sunset Boulevard
    Photograph: Daniel Boud
  4. Ensemble onstage in colourful outfits in Sunset Boulevard
    Photograph: Daniel Boud
  5. Sarah Brightman as Norma Desmond wears a glamorous fur outfit and hat
    Photograph: Daniel Boud
  6. Ensemble onstage in as tailors in Sunset Boulevard
    Photograph: Daniel Boud
  • Theatre, Musicals
  • Princess Theatre, Melbourne
  • Recommended

Review

Sunset Boulevard

3 out of 5 stars

While the musical version of the classic movie still has some oomph, the story of a faded star clinging onto past glories has an unfortunate mirror here

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Time Out says

Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond is a magnificently complex creation. Originally depicted by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s magnetic 1950 movie, she’s the star of countless silent movies, a living legend accruing thousands of adoring fans during her heyday. But the talkies took over Hollywood, and her light was cruelly dimmed, sending her retreating to her decaying hilltop mansion with loyal butler Max Von Mayerling (Erich von Stroheim).

While Norma cuts a tragic figure in her middle ages as the story begins, she can still command a room. “I am big. It’s the movies that got small,” she acidly enunciates at down-on-his-luck movie writer Joe Gillis (William Holden in the movie) when he unexpectedly shows up at her door. Spying a way back to the spotlight through his words, she sets him to work on her chaotic Salome screenplay, abusing her money as power over him.

As a noir-tinged chamber piece, Sunset Boulevard hangs on this increasingly twisted relationship, dancing between dark and the light as moments of hope are dashed to doom. It’s just the stuff The Phantom of the Opera maestro Andrew Lloyd Webber thrives on, eventually securing the story after a tortuously long ‘will they, won’t they’ that thwarted both Swanson and Stephen Sondheim.

Webber’s soaring musical adaptation – with Phantom-like stirrings over a book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton – returns to Australian stages, care of Opera Australia, almost thirty years after Debra Byrne and Hugh Jackman tackled this toxic duo. And there’s a certain symbolic swish to Phantom star Sarah Brightman, who long-ago eschewed musical theatre in favour of a pop-opera career, donning Norma’s elaborately sequinned gowns. But has her lustre rusted like Norma’s chances?

Let’s start with what works. Dashing Jagged Little Pill lead Tim Draxl cuts a fine figure in Joe’s soon-to-be-much-suaver suits. If he’s not quite as hard-boiled as Holden, he certainly brings an insouciant swagger to the role. But it’s opposite Ashleigh Rubenach, rather than Brightman, that he truly pops, with real sparkle between his jaded hack and her hopeful Betty Schaefer. She’s a would-be writer with grand plans of rising above the slush pile she sifts through for Troy Sussman’s gar-chomping movie exec, Sheldrake.

Their witty banter, as he continually rebuffs her attempts to polish his abandoned script for Dark Windows, enlivens the jazzy swing of the ‘Let’s Have Lunch’ reprise, a fantastic ensemble number (and the ensemble is fantastic) that brightens act one. Betty’s actual beau, Artie Green, doesn’t get much of a look-in with her eyes on Joe and the show mostly pushing him to the sidelines, as charming as Jarrod Draper is in the underwritten part. 

But Betty and Joe’s toe-to-toe is the smoking gun that will ignite Norma’s fury, with her command to Max (a steadfast Robert Grubb) to keep her writer housebound a miserable failure. Oh, but what a house, with (ritzy) costume and set designer Morgan Large’s gothic mansion, arguably the greatest star of all.  

Look how the elaborately flocked wallpaper in silvery grey and shadow suggests the lustrous black and white of film, and how this darkness appears to leech, mould-like, into the surrounding Princess Theatre. Wonderfully amplified by Mark Henderson’s lighting, the chiaroscuro effect is a celluloid dream that flows freely into George Reeve’s dramatic car chase animations, projected onto a spider web-like lace curtain. 

Visual splendour abounds, but the show’s a pale imitation of the Wilder movie, with its much more nuanced unravelling. Webber’s score lacks the operatic swirl of Phantom, beyond the haunting melancholy suspended in the dramatic pairing of ‘The Perfect Year’ and ‘New Ways to Dream’. The vertiginous downfall of the narrative sees the score beating ceaselessly forward towards the body floating in the pool that opens the show. 

Alas, the real casualty here is Brightman’s faded performance. No one can take away her past glories, but they seem far behind now. Gone is the gusty delivery, lost in the rain with a reedy vibrato that swallows most of the first act’s best lines. She musters a little more oomph in the second act, but there’s none of Swanson’s stature in her sparring with Joe, as much as Draxl’s valiantly rooting for her to take flight. While many will come to marvel at a mighty star of yesteryear, Silvie Paladino’s Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances might offer a touch more brightness to this sunset.

Sunset Boulevard is playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne for a strictly limited season. Tickets are now on sale here for shows until August 11. The production will also play at the Sydney Opera House in August 2024. 

Love a night at the theatre? Here are the best musicals on this month.

Details

Event website:
sunsetmusical.com.au/
Address
Princess Theatre
163 Spring St
Melbourne
3000
Transport:
Nearby stations: Parliament

Dates and times

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