by Michael Bracken
There are two reasons to see the current Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard: Glenn Close and Glenn Close’s costumes. Close, who starred in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical when it made its New York debut in 1994, plays Norma Desmond, a former silent film star obsessed with making her celluloid comeback, or return, as she prefers to call it.
She’s a diva of epic proportions, and Close holds nothing back as she surrenders to Norma’s larger than life persona. Even her smallest gesture (of which there are few; Norma’s gestures skew grand) is played as if the cameras were rolling, positioned perfectly, poised to show her in the most flattering light.
Close is iconic. She walks with spine erect, gait measured. She sits with perfect posture, lounges with grace. Norma is a caricature of herself, and Close plays her to the rafters, but at the same time makes her frighteningly real.
Of course, a grande dame must have a grand wardrobe. So, one couturier wasn’t enough. Costume designer Tracy Christensen went back to the clothing designed by Anthony Powell for Close to wear in the 1994 production. He borrowed from Powell liberally and incorporated some of his own designs; the result is stunning.
Every piece is dramatic. Several have fabric cascading over Close’s arms, so that when she extends them, as she is wont to do, she’s reminiscent of a Kabuki actor. And when she visits the Paramount lot, for what is the most moving scene in the musical, she’s magnificent in a form fitting black suit, draped with white fur and a vertical black hat dressed with a metallic feather.
While there’s more to Sunset Boulevard than Glenn Close and her costumes, there’s not, nor does there need to be, a whole lot more. There’s a forty-piece orchestra, onstage, the gives the music a full, lush sound; the production directed by Lonny Price.
And there’s James Noone’s very effective set. Noone has kept it simple. The theater stage suggests a sound stage on a studio lot: a lot of empty space and metal scaffolding with stairs and platforms that serve as playing areas. It gives a sense of how much the movies permeate life in Hollywood, and it allows the action to flow easily from one scene into the next.
There’s also Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier). The story begins with Joe dead in Norma’s swimming pool, narrating the story from beyond the grave. Joe is a down-on-his luck writer who ends up at Norma’s doorstep as he flees from two loan sharks. When she learns he’s a writer, she asks him to stay to polish the screenplay she’s been honing as a vehicle for her return. She soon has romantic designs on him as well, and he finds himself in a velvet trap.
Xavier is credible but he doesn’t stand a chance next to Close’s outsized Norma. He just doesn’t have the chops. William Holden, who played Joe in the Billy Wilder movie, held his own with Gloria Swanson, but he was (or at least seemed) older and had a distinctive voice that played into his self-deprecating cynicism. Xavier’s cynicism is less organic. Despite his good looks, he fades into the scenery.
Siobhan Dillon is appealing as Betty, a writing partner who turns into a love interest for Joe. Fred Johanson is ominous but likable as Max von Mayerling, Norma’s one-time director and first husband turned major domo (with a staff of one).
The score is not Lloyd Webber’s best. One song, “With One Look,” sung by Norma about the silent movie days, hits you like a punch, especially with the imperial conviction Close brings to it. There’s a spirited ensemble number, “This Time Next Year,” that entertains without Close being a part of it.
That’s pretty miraculous because Close is what makes this Sunset Boulevard tick. Her singing voice may flatten occasionally, very occasionally, on a high note, but her presence, and oh what a presence, never fails to mesmerize.
Through June 25th at the Palace Theatre (1564 Broadway). http://sunsetboulevardthemusical.com/. 2 hours 40 minutes with one intermission.
Photos: Joan Marcus