Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book and Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Billy Wilder’s 1950s film, set in the late 1940s/1950s about an ageing movie star whose career has faded along with her looks, is the basis for Sunset Boulevard the musical. Norma Desmond (Ria Jones) is living in the past, desperately pretending to herself and others that she is still the star that once she was. Meeting up with young screenwriter Joe Gillis (Strictly’s Danny Mac) she sees in him the opportunity to make a comeback. Convinced that she is still famous, she refuses to admit that her glory days are past. Trouble – and tragedy – lie ahead.
For Sunset Boulevard to succeed, it is essential that the actress playing Norma has absolute command of the stage – and wow! From the moment of her first entry, Swansea-born Ria Jones’ interpretation is superb, as is her voice. She has, quite simply, made the role hers. Ria Jones IS Norma. Not surprisingly, perhaps, for not only did she play the part way back in an earlier attempt by Lloyd Webber to bring the story of the film to the stage, but she had a baptism by fire when she was understudying Glenn Close when Close became ill during the successful West End run. On that occasion, the audience was at first not at all happy with the exchange, to the extent that Jones was initially booed when she came on stage.
Last night a packed audience in the vast Donald Gordon theatre at the Wales Millennium Centre rose to their feet with cries of ‘Brava!’ That says it all.
So how does Danny Mac step up to the podium as the struggling screenwriter Gillis who falls into Norma’s clutches? Pretty well. According to a colleague who first saw this Curve theatre production when it opened at its home in Leicester, Mac has done considerable work since then and has successfully honed the part to the extent where he has grasped the nuances, bringing out the back story as it develops. His duet with Molly Lynch, who brings a clear singing voice and delightful person to the role of Betty – the female half of the girl meets boy romance which forms the sub-plot – is particularly pleasing.
As Max, Norma’s ever-faithful factotum, Adam Pearce comes into his own in Act II, as the audience is made aware of the extent of Max’s love for the former star. As Pearce reprises New Ways to Dream his powerful baritone is a heartbreaker as he sings of his devotion, amidst Norma Desmond’s devastating decline. A spot-on cameo in this final act from Carl Sanderson as Cecil B.DeMille.
Played out on a Hollywood sound stage, the production is faithful to the original with the magnificent set, with sweeping staircase, heavy drapes and flickering candles in gilt sconces as the setting for the star’s decaying mansion on Sunset but has the added bonus of Douglas O’Connell’s video design. Historic film and location footage is projected high on the backdrop, adding yet another layer of poignancy to tug at the heartstrings.
There is more – a 16-piece orchestra, unusual in a touring production. And what a difference it can make, with Lloyd Webber and David Cullen’s emotionally-charged score, under the direction of Adrian Kirk, given the tools it so richly deserves.
Runs until 3 March 2018 | Image: Manuel Harlan