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Theatre in Review: Sunset Boulevard (Palace Theatre)

Glenn Close. Photo: Joan Marcus

"I didn't know you were planning a comeback," says Joe Gillis, a young screenwriter, speaking to the aging, reclusive ex-movie queen Norma Desmond. "I hate that word," snarls Norma. "It's a return!" Glenn Close, a lady who hardly needs a comeback, has consented to return to her most celebrated stage role, as Norma in Sunset Boulevard, the Lucia di Lammermoor of Broadway musicals. (As in Donizetti's opera, we see the heroine unravel, spectacularly.) Once the most famous face in the world, Norma is, in 1950, just another Hollywood has-been, tucked away from the world in an elaborate Gothic pile where she relives her glorious past in the cinema of her mind. Her life consists of a series of grand entrances in darkened rooms to an audience of one -- her creepy Teutonic manservant, Max. Corrupted by idleness, corroded by loneliness, she taps away at a screenplay meant to star herself as a silent, 16-year-old Salome. Never mind that she's really 50, that Al Jolson ushered in talking pictures 23 years earlier, or that anyone under the age of 30 draws a blank at hearing her name. Norma is convinced -- with a wild-eyed certainty typical of borderline personalities -- that millions of "those wonderful people out there in the dark" are avidly waiting to see her again.

Returning to the role after two decades, Close leaves plenty of stardust in her wake. Her face covered in a death mask of foundation, her haired pulled back as severely as any postulant's, her wardrobe so elaborate that she is guaranteed to be overdressed for any occasion, she is a queen in exile, regarding the outside world with a combination of imperiousness and fear. Recognized by an intruder, who impulsively makes a terrible gaffe ("You used to be big."), she freezes, executes a half-turn, and removes her sunglasses before dropping a perfectly timed depth charge of contempt. ("I am big; it's the pictures that got small.") Mourning the passing of her pet chimp, she is the Angel of Death in a turban and dark glasses. Announcing that she has written "a very important film," she produces a pile of manuscript pages so tall it could be the complete works of Leo Tolstoy. Seated on a film set, a boom mic passes near her face and she shoos it away as if it were a malaria-carrying mosquito; when a gaffer turns a spotlight on her, however, she blossoms like a flower following the arc of the sun.

That last bit of business is one of the most telling of Close's performance. Even dressed in the height of outrageous glamour by Anthony Powell (who once again provides Norma's costumes), she at first appears haggard, almost elderly, but, as Joe is drawn into her life, first as a collaborator on the doomed Salome screenplay, then as her lover, the years seemingly fade away, leaving her bubbly, almost girlish. And when it looks as if Joe may be slipping through her fingers, the look of terror mixed with fury in her eyes is painful to see. She fears the loss of Joe's attentions, but even more she fears being deposed from her imaginary throne of stardom. Having attempted suicide to keep him from leaving, she lies on a divan, her wrists wrapped in bandages; she pulls the repentant Joe down, her hands clutching him like talons.

As a friend of mine once commented about Close's performance in 1994, "She put on a show!" Nevertheless, anyone who fondly remembers that show should be aware that, as was the case with Norma, time has had its way with the actress. Never the most vocally accomplished of the Normas -- that would be Patti LuPone or Betty Buckley -- Close's singing has deteriorated significantly, forcing her to talk -- and, sometimes, bark -- her way through some passages of her numbers. In a way, this works to her advantage, making all the more poignant Norma's stab at regaining her youthful glory, but I wished for more. I was reminded of the recent revival of Evita, in which Elena Roger's powerful, but shrill and sharp, singing captured the title character's vaulting ambitions, while also disappointing some musical theatre fans.

Slightly more troubling is the fact that the director, Lonny Price, hasn't been able to rein in certain of his star's occasional excesses. Anyone who plays Norma walks a thin line between tragedy and camp, and there are moments when Close edges away from Billy Wilder's acrid film masterpiece into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? territory; this is especially true of her final scene, in which, having committed murder and undergone a complete psychotic break, she enters dressed in character as Salome, convinced that the gaggle of cops and reporters milling around below are studio employees waiting to film her next scene. Hunched over, eyes darting, her voice distorted by derangement, she is suddenly, unfortunately reminiscent of Carol Burnett's spoof Norma. It's a moment that should be greeted by the audience in hushed silence. At the Palace the other night, it got a pretty big laugh.

Nevertheless, Close is the main attraction, and when she isn't onstage, Sunset Boulevard is a stellar example of the difficulty of trying to musicalize such iconic source material; the onus is on the creative team to bring something new and transformative to the table, a task that, in this case, is frequently fumbled. Don Black and Christopher Hampton's book consists of the greatest hits from Wilder and Charles Brackett's screenplay; the songs -- music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Black and Hampton -- are a random series of hits and misses. At its best, Lloyd Webber's music, especially the opening theme, reprised in the number "The Greatest Star of All," evokes the dark, fatalistic glamour purveyed by such Hollywood composers as Franz Waxman (who did the Wilder film) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Unsurprisingly, Norma gets the cream; "With One Look" ties a seductive melody to lyrics that recall Norma's heyday while hinting at her future madness. "As If We Never Said Goodbye," in which Norma, arriving at the Paramount lot, announces that she has "come home at last," is a perfectly set up showstopper, building to a climax made all the more powerful by our knowledge that she is tragically mistaken

There are other good things, including "Let's Have Lunch," in which Joe and a variety of film colony strivers make platitudinous conversation, but Black, Hampton, and Lloyd Webber are generally at a loss when it comes to the other characters. Joe is saddled with the silly, overwrought title number, which is apparently designed to see how many adjectives the lyricists can attach, meaninglessly, to the word "boulevard." ("Tempting boulevard!" "Frenzied boulevard!" "Brutal boulevard!") The main love ballad, "Too Much in Love to Care," features Joe and Betty Schaeffer, a budding screenwriter and Joe's sub rosa writing partner, both of them allegedly hard-boiled sophisticates, carrying on like a pair of ingenues in a Victor Herbert operetta. "The Lady's Paying" takes a brief interlude from the film, in which Norma buys Joe a new wardrobe, and turns it into a leaden comic sequence, with Joe surrounded by a chorus of mincing haberdashers, all yearning to measure his inseam.

In any case, this is a true star vehicle and nobody else gets to make much of an impression. Michael Xavier has all the right moves as Joe, but, like so many others who preceded him in the role, he lacks the savage wit and powerful sexuality that William Holden brought to the film. Siobhan Dillon is perfectly solid in the thankless role of Betty, who spends most of the show tapping her foot, waiting for Joe to show up for an appointment. As Max, Fred Johanson looks a little young to be Norma's contemporary, but he is a powerful, insinuating presence and he manages the only non-Norma showstopper with "The Greatest Star of All." Broadway fans will enjoy seeing Nancy Anderson as a frustrated screenwriter, Preston Truman Boyd as Betty's fiancé, Andy Taylor as a dyspeptic producer, and Paul Schoeffler, unrecognizable as Cecil B. DeMille. (Price stages a nifty silent exchange between DeMille and Max, which hints at their complicated backstory, revealed late in the second act.)

This is a semi-concert presentation, previously staged in London as a moneymaker for English National Opera. James Noone's set design places the action, with the orchestra onstage, on a Hollywood soundstage; a series of stairs and catwalks allow plenty of room for the characters to maneuver. Since no production design is credited, I assume Noone also provided the hazy, dreamlike black-and-white film footage of old Hollywood that adds much to the atmosphere. Mark Henderson's chiaroscuro lighting is as effective in its way as was John F. Seitz's cinematography for the film. Tracy Christensen's costumes have the right period feel. (Xavier's appearance in a skimpy bathing suit got an ovation at the performance I attended.) Mick Potter's sound design is impeccable throughout.

Sunset Boulevard isn't a great musical, but it's a pretty good vehicle, at least if the right star is on hand. Close's performance is sufficiently titanic to justify this limited-run return. If she isn't the greatest star of all, she's still a sight to see. -- David Barbour

(21 February 2017)

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