Book and Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Director: Nikolai Foster
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Sunset Boulevard has been around for an astonishing length of time. The original Billy Wilder film was made in the early 1950s, and versions of Lloyd Webber’s musical have been in production since the early 1990s, with mixed success. Nevertheless, like the old trouper at its heart, it keeps ploughing on. So it must have something going for it.
Sheffield’s Lyceum played host to the latest touring production, valiantly pitched against the competing delights of the Snooker World Championships at next door’s Crucible Theatre. The tour follows a successful run at London’s Coliseum Theatre and the leading actors have stayed with the show for its provincial outing, so there is a real sense of West End magic in the moist Yorkshire air.
The story is taken from the original Billy Wilder film script and retains the virtues of that iconic tragic tale. An impoverished Hollywood scriptwriter is hired to resurrect the faded career of a silent film starlet. She sees him as her salvation; he sees her as a generous meal ticket. Their differing expectations, desires and ambitions, set them on a tragic course which ends in death and disaster. If Shakespeare had to re-write Anthony and Cleopatra for 1950s Los Angeles, he might have borrowed Wilder’s script with little sense of shame. Norma Desmond is a worthy tragic heroine, while her besotted former husband Max provides a more than adequate sub-plot.
The cast of main characters is small, and the love quadrangle at the heart of the story is rarely displaced from centre stage. When it is, the tone suffers. So the touches of comic relief, in scenes featuring gents outfitters and beauticians, simply disrupt the clean lines of a well-constructed plot. The tightness and the tautness of the relationships provides the dramatic tension which powers the show. The caustic, sardonic, perspective provided by Danny Mac’s world-weary Joe Gillis adds a delicious bitterness to the sometimes syrupy Lloyd Webber approach: More acid drops than sherbet dab, entirely suited to the cynical reflections on the shallow showbiz glamour around which the main characters revolve.
But despite the quality of the key elements, this is a musical which has sometimes struggled to match the success of other Lloyd Webber blockbusters. The reason is at first perplexing. Many of the songs are of good quality, and, in the main, they are woven into the fabric of the show with great facility. The music matches the light and shade of the story skillfully and with considerable sensitivity. There are a few obvious “belters”, which work very effectively, and some of the ensemble chorus work is a joy. But there are also a few turkeys, including the title song, which seems to be pointless and almost tuneless.
If the base material is sometimes not of the first order, the same could not be said of the performances from any quarter. Ria Jones has been knocking out Norma Desmond for years and inhabits the role with humanity and poignancy. Danny Mac is a fully three-dimensional Joe Gillis, both hard-boiled and soft-hearted. Adam Pearce is a soulful survivor of Norma’s romantic past, often no more than a brooding reverential presence, but with a vocal power of both emotional and musical depth. Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer brings a freshness to contrast with the jaded outlook of those around her, and the loss of her innocence is not the least of the tragic consequences of the drama.
The 15 piece orchestra sustain the musical energy throughout the show. The set design and technical effects are of a very high order. Set changes are slick and disciplined to keep the momentum of the drama, and special effects manage to reflect the Wilder original while also referencing other cinema classics. Projection is used effectively to evoke both the silent screen and the 1950s golden era of Hollywood, including some thrilling car chases. As a stage spectacle, it is close to perfect.
In preserving the emotional tone of the original, including the sympathetic portrayal of the delusional Norma, and the cynical hard-bitten perspective provided by Joe, Sunset Boulevard rests on the shoulders of dramatic giants. Some of the musical elements can bear company with this talent, but sadly not all.
Runs until 28 April 2018 | Image: Contributed