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Broadway review: Glenn Close returns in demented triumph to Sunset Boulevard

Sunset Boulevard
Photograph: Joan Marcus

On the run from debt collectors, 1950s Hollywood writer Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier) drives up to a mansion belonging to the proud, time-warped Norma Desmond (Glenn Close), a washed-up idol of the silent-film era who now lives in seclusion with her servant, Max (Fred Johanson). Sucked into the black hole created by the collapse of this great star, the handsome and malleable Joe soon becomes her kept man—almost her prisoner—as he helps her trim her screenplay for an epic in which she has cast herself as the 16-year-old temptress Salome. “They don’t want to see you in every scene,” says Joe. “Of course they do,” she replies. “What else would they have come for?”

So it is with Sunset Boulevard. Those who go to see Close reprise her celebrated turn in the musical’s 1994 Broadway production will not be disappointed. There was a risk of Norma-like pathos in the prospect of the actress, now nearly 70, returning to a role she played more than 20 years ago—draped, no less, in her original Anthony Powell costumes, a fantastical array of capes and turbans and fur cuffs and animal prints. But Close holds the stage with a feverish intensity that transcends camp. Her Norma may live in a fantasy world, but in a town of phonies, she inhabits her grand delusions with total authenticity.

If only she could be in every scene! For the rest of Sunset Boulevard, adapted from Billy Wilder’s timeless 1950 film, is mostly a languorous slog. In place of the 1994 version’s ornate set is a 40-piece onstage orchestra, billed as Broadway’s largest in 80 years, as if to say that the real costar is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music. (Conductor Kristen Blodgette takes a bow with the principals at curtain call.) But only rarely does the score seem worthy of this lush treatment: in Norma’s two sweeping solos, “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” and in the cinematic, mournful, ominous opening strains of the overture, later taken up by Max as “The Greatest Star of All.”

Otherwise, this is second-rate Lloyd Webber: filler songs that loop and repeat exhaustingly, set to lyrics that often clunk. The orchestra is wasted on such glorified vamping. There is little satirical punch in the group scenes of life in La La Land—or one in which Joe is dressed by a mincing, limp-wristed suit salesman—and no spark in the scenes between Joe and script reader Betty (Siobhan Dillon), who must take off her glasses and let down her hair before they can share an ersatz–Rodgers and Hammerstein duet. Director Lonny Price comes up with clever staging ideas, including a Follies­-esque black-and-white ghost of the younger Norma who haunts the background of her scenes, and Xavier has an attractive voice, impressive muscles and appealingly quizzical eyebrows. But none of them can raise the show above itself.

The only one who can do that is Close, and she does. In the show’s best scene, Norma returns to Paramount Pictures for what she thinks will be her comeback, and when a crewman throws a spotlight on her she reacts as though emerging from a cave into her first ray of sunshine in years. Shaking with rapture and fear, riveting in her poignant confusion, Close reflects that spotlight's radiance on all of us sitting out there in the dark.

Palace Theatre (Broadway). Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Lonny Price. With Glenn Close, Michael Xavier, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson. Running time: 2hrs 35mins. One intermission. Through June 25. Click here for full ticket and venue information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam  

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