I’m willing to bet there isn’t a more heart-shattering five minutes on Broadway today than Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard playing faded film star Norma Desmond as she takes in what she believes to be her return to Hollywood. The new production, from the West End, of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (don’t call it a revival; it’s a return) is structured around this moment.
She is weak at first, tearful, squirming in the light, leaning on her castmates for support, but slowly she warms into it, like a cold-blooded creature finally bathed in sun. Before long she is packing the emotional weight of a two-hour concert into a few minutes, and it’s easy to forget anyone else is onstage.
Before and after, Close treats Desmond as a capering, mincing woman-child, stalking around a cold and metallic set while dressed in oversize golden drapery — a silent-film diva who couldn’t make it in talkies, her delusions of grandeur fed by her butler, Max (Fred Johanson, a study in creepy gravitas). She is shut in in a moneyed mausoleum, which designer James Noone represents through a pair of industrial staircases. Beneath is a forty-piece orchestra lusciously conducted by Kristen Blodgette; above floats a deranged rope made of chandeliers. In this setting, which light designer Mark Henderson litters with shadows, the constriction of Desmond’s world is made literal, pushing the actors either downstage or onto those endless stairs.
Despite her derangement, Desmond has a plan for returning to her former stardom. With the help of Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), a young hack writer who has become her kept lover and script doctor, she has written an overwrought silent-film scenario that she is convinced Cecil B. DeMille wants to direct. Bursting onto DeMille’s set, and momentarily treated by studio employees like the royalty she once was, Desmond tastes the end of her isolation and the play’s magic moment arrives. Close, briefly allowed to drop her stylized performance and given one of Webber’s most dramatically believable songs, “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” knows what to do. She’s a capable but not impressive singer (Webber’s difficult score has found better interpreters in Patti LuPone and Barbra Streisand), but few actors can so commit to a character’s monomania; by sheer force, Close asserts her place among the Palace Theatre’s lineage of iconic headliners.
It’s a shame the production reaches this height only once, but it’s by design. Director Lonny Price has tossed out the realistic and distractingly expensive style of the 1994 production, which also starred Close, in favor of a stripped-down approach that emphasizes the destructive melodrama Desmond, Gillis, and Max play out. With images of old Hollywood projected onto a silk screen, and another actor portraying young Desmond silently in the background, the feeling is of a ghost story in which the ghosts haven’t died. Close, though overly mannered, is captivating whenever and wherever she is onstage — to the detriment of co-star Xavier, who sings well but lacks any degree of Close’s presence. Not their chemistry but the competition between her charisma and Price’s restrictive production drives the evening. The result is at times suffocating, but there are also moments that scorch like film caught in a projector.
By Andrew Lloyd Webber
1564 Seventh Avenue
Through June 25