Friday, 10 October 2014

Sunset Boulevard, The Q

Andrew Lloyd-Webber is the ten-pound gorilla of musicals - his shows are among the biggest of all time (in the list of longest running Broadway shows, he has the top two - Phantom and Cats - on the West End he has to be satisfied with 3rd and 6th, due to the non-closing of The Mousetrap and Les Miserables). "Sunset Boulevard" is unusual in the Lloyd Webber canon in that it's got a strong central star part for a mature diva (and mature divas have devoured the role, from Patti LuPone to Glenn Close ... even Barbra Streisand launched two of the songs on her "Back to Broadway" album and used "As If we Never Said Goodbye" as her opening song in her iconic 1994 concert, and reused it to launch the shows in her 2012 tour. Incidentally, for people who are wondering out there, yes, That Guy is a homosexual. Flaming).

Based on the Billy Wilder film, the show is about a cynical screenwriter who's encounter with a former silent-screen diva becomes increasingly fraught with danger as her delusions about her potential return to the silver screen. Obviously Wilder's film had the advantage that it could use the real Cecil B. DeMille, and Gloria Swanson and Eric Von Stroheim were playing characters not-too-far-removed from their own past - but the musical has it's own virtues in a lavish score with suspensful ostinatos and two strong arias for Chief Diva Norma Desmond (Brownyn Sullivan), one per act. And Sullivan is in powerfully good voice for both of them, seducing rapturous applause from the audience. She's also clearly studied her silent film divas - her ever-active fingers signalling a woman who's used to big gestures.

Elsewhere, things are a bit more uneven. Vocally the cast is mostly strong, dramatically the show doesn't work as well. This is a story of strong passions and dramatic movements, and the staging keeps on getting bogged down in the most awkward of places, with long pauses killing the pace in unfortunate places (particularly late in act two and just before "As If We Never Said Goodbye" - the cast sorta stand around awkwardly and wait for Sullivan to burst forth. There is also a tendency during the big songs for the cast to not sufficiently engage one another - it's "face front, feet down, belt it to the back wall" blocking, and leads to other cast members often being stuck on the sidelines onstage waiting til they're allowed to act again.

Sullivan's Norma is too often a daffy auntie rather than a demandying monstrous Diva. Daniel Wells' cynical narration only rarely gets to show the heart and torment as he's drawn guiltily towards Desmond, first as a source of income and later as a protector. Peter Dark's Max Von Myerling starts strongly as he imposingly stalks the halls and sternly barks his responses, but it's not until late into act two that we get any variation in his performance. Vanessa DeJager, is sweet, funny and charming but there's no sense of burgeoning chemistry between her and Wells until they burst into their love song halfway through the second act - and the relationship is over a scene after that, which doesn't help.

Sharon Tree's orchestra is mostly pretty solid but either there's too many synths in there or the sound mix by Eclipse Lighting and Sound brings them too much to the fore, leading to an overly "tinny" sound. Brian Sudding's set suffers from being overly tightly contained and not changing all evening, but also looks like some of the painting hasn't really been finished (the chimney, in particular, looks half-done). Miriam Miley-Read's costumes capture the era and the granduer (as required) gorgeously.

So this is a show about grand passions that, alas, ends up being largely an academic exercise. It's often pretty and nicely presented, but it lacks the guts and soul that would bring this from "adequate" to "extrordinary".

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