Glenn Close’s performance in Sunset Boulevard at the Coliseum is likely to be the musical theatre performance of the year.

000000Sunset 3She enters tentatively, wary.

The space around her, the sound stage, is familiar but different. She looks utterly fabulous, as if ready for a Vogue Woman Of The Year covershoot. She clutches her impossibly long white mink/sable stole somewhat desperately, perhaps to keep steady, perhaps to keep out the cold, perhaps just because it is there. She sits in the chair provided to her. Her face is trapped in a permanent smile of welcome, but her eyes betray flickering uncertainty. Crew and assistants clump in groups, looking at her in awe. Silent, surprised, reverent.

Then an old friend spots her, someone she worked with in the heady, long past days. She warmly greets him – but he is too high up on a gantry to get a proper look at her. So he turns on a spotlight.

Suddenly, she is bathed in the full embrace of the cold white light. She doesn’t move a muscle but everything about her changes instantly. Like an ardent lover, she responds instinctively to the light. She soaks in the spotlight, and the other lights which now seek her out. Her audience, people who work with lights every day, look on in awe. They know that there is something special happening here.

She seems decades younger, the skin on her face suddenly radiant. Her eyes are ablaze with effulgent ecstacy. She breathes in the studio, its memories, its glories, its possibilities and seems to grow larger, more than alive, as the light continues to bathe her.

Then she sings.

In the cacophony of stomping, cheering, yelling that follows from her adoring fans (quite rightly), she preens proudly, like a Peacock expansively showing off her feathers. She soaks up the adulation, absorbs it in to the very skin of the character, and lets it propel her though the next scenes. She is a proper, old-fashioned star of the stage who knows how to create, exploit and then savour every triumphant and showy aspect of a performance. She shows you, clearly, unmistakably, thrillingly, what a screen goddess once was.

 

000000Sunset6She is Glenn Close, totally reimagining Norma Desmond in the revival of Sunset Boulevard, directed by Lonny Price, with assistance from Matt Cowart, and brilliantly choreographed by Stephen Mear, now playing at the Coliseum for the ENO. Close’s presence alone would be enough to justify rushing to the Coliseum to see this revival, but, actually, there is a surfeit of reasons to go. There has never been a production of Sunset Boulevard this classy, this beautifully costumed and staged, this gloriously sung, or supported by such a rhapsodic orchestra. This is as close to musical theatre heaven as it is possible for Sunset Boulevard to ascend.

It is increasingly common these days for stage musicals to be created from famous films. The 1993 premiere production of Sunset Boulevard (Music, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lyrics and book, Don Black and Christopher Hampton) featured a sumptuous, overwhelming design and production values which all but dwarfed and obscured the film noir roots: Billy Wilder’s Award winning film which had been the starting point for the musical.

In 2008, Craig Revel Horwood revived the musical for the Watermill Theatre in an approach which was minimalist, to say the least, and which featured cast members playing instruments. That production successfully transferred to the Comedy Theatre: by focussing on the music and the characters, Revel Horwood found an entirely new energy for the piece and one of the results of that saw the melodies and plot twists given greater prominence. These two productions, both extremely popular, represented directorial visions about as far apart as possible.

Price starts and finishes from an altogether different place: the black and white films which inspired Wilder’s movie. The performance begins with black and white film images projected onto the stage, setting a very clear film noir tone right from the outset. These projections occur throughout the action, always rooting the narrative in the past even as it progresses forward. They represent a constant reminder of who and what Norma Desmond is/was/represents as well as being perfect indicators of tone. Their use is inspired.

000000Sunset4James Noone’s set runs with the theme. The overall impression of the stage is a Film Studio Sound Stage, with gantries and walk-ways and staircases and platforms – all black and featureless, permitting endless possibilities but framing everything as related to the heady, gaudy, frantic, and fickle world of the business of film making. Inside some gantries and supports, Mark Henderson, Lighting Designer, has inserted lights which can be utilised to create different effects and moods. When a car chase has to be staged, two members of the ensemble create a marvellous effect of two sets of headlights, one pursuing the other, simply by galloping over the gantries, lit hand torches in each fist.

Henderson permits real darkness on the stage, so people or things can suddenly appear from nowhere. There are bridges, and archways, balconies, roof terraces – the space is flexible enough to permit all the necessary locations. There is a particularly marvellous moment when Max drives Norma to the studios for a meeting with Cecil B DeMille – her pristine period black limousine is on stage and, after some business with security (very funny), off it drives – taking her to her destiny. It a simple but astonishingly effective scene, conjured up out of imagination and darkness.

 

Nestled in the centre of the stage, and underneath some of the criss-crossing gantries and walkways, is the 48 strong ENO Orchestra, under the capable control of the superb conductor Michael Reed who brings a languid and luxurious quality to every bar of the score. With real strings in serious numbers at his disposal, every glory of Lloyd Webber’s score – and there are many – is uncovered, delivered and given fully lustrous attention. The sound swells like the sea, sometimes with crashing effectiveness, sometimes almost silently, but always teeming with life. It’s a long time since an orchestra this skilled played a musical score so breathlessly well on a West End stage.

000000Sunset5Sunset Boulevard reaps the benefit: just as Revel Horwood’s pared down version accentuated the melody lines, here the full orchestra does the same, but in a lusher, more opulent manner which entirely suits the subject matter. The playing actually transcends the writing occasionally, adding freshness and nuance to repeated tunes or phrases.

Sunset Boulevard may not have had the commercial success of some of his other works, but it is certainly one of his finest scores. It forms a coherent whole and there is a tangible sense of faded glamour about almost every aspect of it. It provides real vocal challenges for its cast, as is often the case with Lloyd Webber scores, and sits in odd and challenging places for the voices who sing it. Because of the characteristics of the people originally cast in the roles when Sunset Boulevard premiered, there are those who have developed particular expectations about some of the music.

But, in truth, the role of Norma Desmond is not written for either a coloratura or a brassy belter: it is written for someone who can make the music soar. Michael Crawford was not, by a long shot, the best singer ever to undertake the role of the Phantom in Phantom Of The Opera, but no one can deny the powerful performance he gave in the role. It was the same recently in the West End with Imelda Staunton’s rightly lauded turn as Mama Rose in Gypsy.

 

000000Sunset1And so it is with Glenn Close. I have seen and heard many Norma Desmonds – but in this production, Glenn Close gives the finest, most complete, most exhilarating, most thrilling Norma Desmond I have seen or am likely to see.

Not all the music might be approached the way Close approached it twenty odd years ago. Not all of it might be in the key which suited Patti LuPone. Passages which cabaret or recording artists have belted might be approached differently. But none of that matters.

Close gives a completely connected, utterly consistent performance – quiet passages are lyrical and touching, sometimes lilting, sometimes lost, depending on Norma’s connection with reality at the time of singing, but she can whack out a powerful phrase of musical sound with complete conviction too. The key money notes in With One Look and As If I Never Said Goodbye are true, powerful and overwhelming. But they are part of an overall musical tapestry which Close weaves out of the score – the haunted pain in New Ways To Dream, the girlish hope in The Perfect Year, the brutality born out of addiction in The Phone Call – all of these elements are throughout Close’s performance, bubbling to the surface in different ways in different songs. She doesn’t just go for the big notes and the big phrases – she performs the role. Faultlessly.

When first seen, she is broken, shattered by the death of her beloved monkey, barely able to stand as she makes her way along the corridors, stumbling, smashed, unloved. When Joe chances into her house, she spots an opportunity, and takes it. Like a vampire, she draws strength from his presence, while at the same time weakening him. She grows stronger, more assured, but, simultaneously, regresses almost to an ingénue, flighty and fluttery. She convinces herself that he loves her and truly believes that she can have her career back; even a visit to the studio where she is all but humiliated by DeMille, who refuses to actually confess how appalling he found her script for a movie about a 16 year old Salome, a role she has written for herself, does not deflate her new bubble of confidence and composure. But when she realises Joe has another love interest, Betty, she loses her senses, destroys her relationship with Joe and then, impulsively, acts out in real life a scenario which is fit for one of her silent movie successes. The gun fired, her last link to sanity snaps and she becomes indistinguishable from her fictional Salome.

Close’s final entrance, deranged and made up as a grotesque caricature of her coveted Salome is both alarming and incredible. She conveys the sense of utter insanity easily, along with a profound sense of desperate sorrow. Despite her foolish excesses, her imperious attitudes, her uncritical condescension, Close’s Norma is completely adorable: the quintessential Diva. It is a magical, revelatory performance; a magnificent bejewelled butterfly turning into a moth before one’s eyes. Barnstorming in sections, brittle in sections, broken in sections, brilliant always. Glenn Close sets a standard here for the performance of this role which will take some beating – if beating that standard ever is possible.

She has superb support from Anthony Powell who is responsible for her costumes and wigs. The wigs are astoundingly good – they give this Norma a quite different, slightly manic look in the early scenes. Later, she is a celebration of decadent coiffure. Her outfits are astonishing – from a bizarre Japenese outfit that would suit any Katisha, to a perfect superstar look for the trip to DeMille to the final, deranged Salome with much black and gold wonder along the way. Close looks a million dollars at all times but her performance is priceless.

000000Sunset8Michael Xavier is splendid in every way as Joe Gillis. He starts off louche and lost, seemingly out of his depth, which, of course, is precisely the state in which Joe is when we meet him. He is hesitant and confused by Norma, still resisting her world in the very funny The Lady’s Paying where a gaggle of camp and exclusive tailors measure, strip and reclothe him. He wears his new clothes uneasily but, realising he doesn’t really fit in anywhere, decides to go with what Norma is offering.

When Act Two opens he is harder, unkinder, used to the luxury and soaking it up. The difference between his first entrance and the confident eight-pack show-off in tiny blue swimming trunks appearance which commences the second Act is extraordinary – but Xavier has laid out the transition perfectly.

Singing with unending style and a golden, pure voice, Xavier makes the most of the music, with Sunset Boulevard being delivered more passionately and bitterly than I have ever heard it before. Equally, Xavier does tender, intimate work with Close in their various duets and he has an easy, relaxed style in all the conversational work/recitative passages, especially with Haydn Oakley’s affable and sweet Artie Green and the characters played by Ashley Robinson and Fenton Gray.

Of course, Joe has two romances: the one imposed on him by Norma, but to which he is a willing party, and the one which blooms from the unlikeliest of places with Betty, Artie’s wife. Siobhan Dillon is excellent as Betty, warm and delightful throughout. The business side of their partnership is thoroughly believable and you see how Betty’s attention thaws Joe to the point where, her being married to Artie, he gives life with Norma a go. The climactic Too Much In Love To Care, one of Lloyd Webber’s most delicate love songs, sees both Dillon and Xavier in top vocal form and is a true delight. Most devastating of all, however, is Betty’s final dismissal of Joe after she finds out the gigolo life he has been leading – succinct and crushing at once.

 

000000Sunset7Also outstanding, and easily the best Max I have ever seen or heard, is Fred Johanson who brings a sombre, dedicated adoration of Norma to everything he does, every shadow in which he lurks. Tall and imposing, Johanson has a voice of pure dark chocolate, smooth and dextrous. His Greatest Star Of All and his reprise of New Ways To Dream were utter perfection, truly glorious sound. Johanson made a slightly ridiculous role completely credible, unfeasibly memorable.

There are no weak links in the cast with especially good work from Julian Forsythe, Katie Kerr, Tanya Robb and Mark Goldthrope.

000000Sunset4Another exceptional aspect of this production is the clever and utterly appropriate choreography from Stephen Mear. It buzzes and bristles and bounces and bops, infectiously enlivening the set pieces and adding characterful nuance to the unfolding narrative. As ever, Mear makes the dancing look effortless and natural; it’s the key to his genius.

Unsurprisingly, the audience leapt to its feet at the conclusion of press night and kept on its feet for some time, expressing adulation for not just Close and her co-stars, but all of the creatives including the composer and lyricists. It was wild applause but richly deserved.

Sometimes it takes a revival to unleash the real power of a production. Sondheim knows all about that. Now, thanks to Price, Mear, Reed, Cowart, Close, Xavier, Dillon, Johanson and the ENO orchestra (and a first rate ensemble), so does Lloyd Webber.

If you miss it, you might as well never go to the theatre again.

Six stars

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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.