Sunset Boulevard features one of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most lavish and thrilling scores and the truly memorable aspect of Nikolai Foster’s touring revival of the work is the glorious sound that Adrian Kirk extracts from the bespoke sixteen piece orchestra gathered for the occasion. The lush orchestral sound envelops the auditorium and does all the heavy lifting here.
There is a magical moment in the early part of the second Act of Sunset Boulevard which is, done properly, one of those spine-tingling moments that sits with you for life; an image evoked every time you hear As If We Never Said Goodbye again. It involves four key elements: a craggy oldtimer who has worked the spotlight for De Mille for decades; Norma seated in a chair waiting for De Mille’s attention; an orchestra that reaches the crescendo just as the old timer hits Norma’s chair with the light; and an assortment of studio crew and actors paying rapt attention to the revelation of the presence of a true star back on set.
Sadly, this production robs that moment of three of those four elements. The lighting operator is a young man (who couldn’t have been there when Norma was a megastar); the ensemble fidget and fuss while the song is sung, they are not rooted to the ground with sheer fascination; and Norma is made to stand, so the initial impact loses its punch. Watching Norma curl into the effulgent glare of the solo spot is glorious and it’s absence here was palpable. Only the orchestra under Kirk’s fastidious and masterful care brought the right magic to the moment.
The disappointment in the detail of this one scene is mentioned because it exemplifies the overall problem here. Foster has sought to make Sunset Boulevard into a musical comedy when it is not that – it’s a musical tragedy if anything. It’s not a show full of chorus boys and girls and character types telling an arch story with songs. It has real meat on the bone and to come close to working it must have six excellent actors who can really sing and a committed ensemble capable of carving out real characters from very little. Foster seems to have no time for that, opting for a more song and dance caper feel which all but fatally undermines the piece.
The most successful performance of the evening comes from Adam Pearce, who makes a silky, silent and stern Max Von Mayerling, the constant companion and attendant to Ria Jones’ Norma Desmond. He glides, glares and gently guides his mistress with resolute and unstinting determination. Vocally, he manufactures a wonderfully weary bass-baritone which carries the scars of disappointment but is also capable, in the pianissimo sections, of conveying rapture and past triumph. It’s a centred, very compelling performance.
In Woking, audiences find Dougie Carter in the very difficult role of Joe Gillis. Carter is far too young to play the role but, despite that, he delivers a quite terrific performance. His voice is agile and potent and he has no trouble singing the title song. He makes a good fist of the scene work too, although he is often hampered by lack of support – Barney Wilkinson’s wet Artie never convinced as a rival for Betty, and Kristoffer Hellström’s bizarrely cartoonish Sheldrake is impossible to take seriously.
However, Carter’s greatest issue is Molly Lynch’s disappointing Betty. The part is throughly thought through in the script – Betty is serious, wants a career, really loves Artie but finds herself falling desperately for Joe. Passion is her undoing but there was no sign of it in Lynch’s performance; rather, she could have been any number of ingenues from No, No, Nanette to Guys And Dolls. Vocally, she was no match for Carter and although the notes were mostly there, the sincerity and drive were not. Which rather left Carter in the lurch as he could not carry their love story on his own. Perhaps Lynch’s performance is calibrated to suit Danny Mac who plays Gilles elsewhere in the tour.
Carl Sanderson makes a good enough job of De Mille and there is good work from Bernadette Bangura as Jean and Benjamin Chambers as Jonesy. The ensemble sing with precision and style and the ensemble numbers all sound terrific. The balance between orchestra and vocal line is, on the whole, excellent (kudos to Tom Marshall and Kirk) and when it slightly misses the mark it is usually because of the fussy stage business that Foster and choreographer Lee Proud have presided over.
Other aspects of the production are very much hit and miss. Douglas O’Connell’s projections never really work and cannot be seen by the extremes of the audience. There is much to be said for the makeshift set and the segmented staircase, pieces moving and changing to create different spaces, but much less can be said of the costumes which scarcely do anyone justice.
Ben Cracknell’s lighting design is haphazard, with lead performers often singing in the dark. For a show which has been on the road for some time, the discipline of the staging was unaccountably lax.
But, in many ways, a successful Sunset Boulevard makes its mark (or not) on the stamina, skill and star power of its lead, Norma Desmond, here played by Jones. Jones has a powerful, vibrant and thrilling voice, ideally suited to this role and she showed that clearly when she stepped into Glenn Close’s shoes in the ENO’s concert version.
But the role requires more than bravura singing, which is why Close received such acclaim. It requires tremendous control, as an actor, a whip like flexibility for mood changes and an inherent sense of stillness, when the eyes do all of the work. Jones did not seem as in command of the acting aspects here, again perhaps because Carter’s Gillis is new to the mix. Her best work came in With One Look, which she attacked with gusto despite some tonality issues, and her The Perfect Year was infused with a girlish hope that was very affecting.
As If We Never Said Goodbye saw Jones’ voice in full and impressive vocal flight, but the staging marred her big moment. Such a pity. Jones’ relationship with Max was more fond than I think I have ever seen that friendship played and I remain unconvinced that it was a good innovation. Somehow, it robbed both of the characters of a terrible sadness.
One left the theatre thinking that Jones has a more powerful, more compelling take on the role within her. When she hit the right attitude and notes, she was a true diva in full captivation mode, but not much of the staging had as its core purpose the story of the demise of Norma Desmond. The final scene was not nearly as powerful as it ought to be – a case of more proving to be less.
Still, there is much to enjoy and admire here. Just to hear a touring orchestra play this well is worth the ticket price. And Jones, Pearce and Carter, who surely will go on to have a serious career, provide plenty of moments of theatrical joy.