Review: Sunset Boulevard (London Coliseum) JohnnyFox April 5, 2016 Musicals, Reviews The night after Imelda Staunton picked up her Olivier award for best actress in a musical in Gypsy, her successor is a rock solid certainty. With such tumultuous reception at the Coliseum, there is no doubt that Glenn Close must win for Sunset Boulevard in which, like Staunton, she plays a deluded and flawed tragic hero of the entertainment business. That Close is a movie star with a memorable back catalogue playing a silent movie star whose back catalogue has been eclipsed is just the surrealist cherry on her richly iced cake. Stephen Sondheim began a musical of Sunset Boulevard and it’s fortunate he abandoned it because it’s doubtful Sondheim would have orchestrated it with the swimmingly sensual depth Andrew Lloyd Webber chose as homage to the film music by which he’d been enthralled when young and which may prove his epitaph as the woven, silken fabric of his best work. The score is the centerpiece of this stripped-down staging in the Grade/Linnit production at the Coliseum, the only residual feature of the ENO company (once its magnificent chorus had been hired then stood down as ‘unsuitable’ to play the ensemble) is the ferociously excellent 48-piece orchestra upstage and centre. Even if you’re completely familiar with this music, you have never heard it played better. Not only does Michael Reed restrain the tempi and coax the strings to cinematic heights when following the car chase or tenderly underscoring Close’s solos, there’s enough dirty brass to power a Cuban nightclub in support of the upbeat numbers. Few productions have excited as much anticipatory comment on social media, and even though former Normas Patti LuPone and Elaine Paige are still singing forcibly and chewing scenery at approximately the same age, speculation was rife whether Close would be up to the vocal demands twenty years after she won the Tony. She is perhaps fortunate that Lloyd Webber sites ‘With One Look’ so early in the proceedings because once she’d hurdled that, confidently staring down the audience with its final crescendo, she was home free. There’s a break in her range more experienced singers could have transitioned better, but who may not have acted the part with more intelligence. She has a wonderful way of undercutting the climax of a set-piece song by almost throwing away the next line. It’s winning. This Norma is less imperious, often playful or skittish, which sets her up for a credible loosening of her grip on reality. Some of her mood-swings are too abrupt, but the additional years of experience have given Close an observant perspective on ageing and delusion which she fully transmits to the audience. You could wish they’d make Norma’s age more accurate. She’s 50. It’s in the script. Gloria Swanson was 50 when she made the film. It’s almost grotesque of the book writer and lyricist to repeatedly suggest she’s ‘ancient’ or beyond the age of sexuality because the pathos is not in her decrepitude but in her elegant reclusive withdrawal, a dethroned queen: in Close’s aching interpretation, a Wallis Simpson of the silver screen. The original London and Broadway productions both lost money because of the high initial costs including an elaborate rococo mansion set with a realistic swimming pool and gilded staircase on lifts. Here, the grand luxe is represented only by a cluster of chandeliers and the deconstruction makes you focus more on both the strengths of the 1950 Billy Wilder movie and its flawed but fascinating characters, and the weaknesses of the stage book. It enhances the ‘big’ songs and exposes the feebler comic chorus numbers for tailors and beauticians. Clever. The search for a suitable leading man and foil to play Joe Gillis must have been tough. Someone not so starry as to steal the limelight from Close, competent enough to carry the dramatic narrative and not botoxed beyond facial expression. Not Barrowman, then. Michael Xavier, rescued from old-before-his-time roles like Captain von Trapp is an amazement and a delight. At the curtain call, the audience were on their feet for him before Close even made her bows. His elegant fluidity even as a down-at-heel and slightly desperate writer is so attractive, and he sings conversationally and with feeling, like an effortless charm. Fully clothed he is every inch the leading man, and stripped to skimpy speedos emerging from the orchestra pit ‘pool’ at the top of Act 2 with a washboard stomach and balconied pectorals, he’s hot too. Don’t be late back from the bar.