I am glad to have been born during the height of Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s popularity, when show after show became global box office hits, and prompted a whole generation to fall in love with musical theatre. There was nothing quite like the anticipation of one of his new musicals, or the impression of seeing his melodies performed live as a youngster. When done right, they are still unmissable.
Sunset Boulevard, which first premièred at London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1993, was one that passed me by, nor was I lucky enough to see Glen Close reprise her Broadway performance as Norma Desmond during the 2017 London Coliseum run. Close’s acclaimed turn, complete with a 40-piece orchestra, undoubtedly helped to bring the musical back into the public consciousness and I finally got to see the show at Bristol Hippodrome earlier this week, with her understudy, Ria Jones, leading the extensive UK tour to rave reviews.
Sunset Boulevard is based on the 11 times Academy Award nominated 1950 Billy Wilder film noir starring Gloria Swanson, and whilst Lloyd-Webber’s original dream-team included Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s for the book and lyrics, along with director Trevor Nunn, the current tour has all the appealing freshness of a brand new show. Nor does it feel like any hardship at all to see Swansea-born Jones instead of Close, for no-one can take away how convincing she is.
Jones, whose musical credits include Cats, Les Miserables and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, achieved her first major break at the age of nineteen when she became the youngest person to play Eva Perron in Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. And she is thrillingly convincing as the deluded silent film actress, Desmond who is convinced that her return to the big screen is just around the corner, singing “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye” with not only impressive power, but all the emotional nostalgia and faded glamour that is demanded from the part. The rest of the cast are almost equally charismatic and talented, with Adam Pearce putting in a fine turn as Desmond’s former director husband Max Von Meyerling, now her overbearing butler/PA, who has the unenviable task of having to write her fake fan mail on a daily basis.
Nikolai Foster’s direction is on point, while the flamboyance of Colin Richmond’s costumes and sets, complete with a sweeping spiral staircase and a Paramount Studios arch (they still hold the rights to the film and are the key to a musical film version being made in future), enhances the Hollywood razzle-dazzle. It’s no wonder that the original production ended up losing money due to extortionate running costs (besides the legal suit started by Faye Dunaway who, after getting dropped from the Broadway show on grounds that her vocals weren’t up to scratch, sued due to the apparent damage to her reputation). That’s America for you.
This well conceived production of light and shade captures not only the bitterness of those, like Desmond, who are tossed aside like an old shoe when youth and beauty passes them by, but the determination/desperation of the young to get a bite at the Hollywood cherry, including screenwriter, Joe Gillis (Dougie Carter) who literally crashes into Desmond’s life and finds himself editing the epic script she has had no choice but to write for herself.
It’s been twenty years since she was a headline act, but if the pair team up perhaps they can both have their moment of glory – that’s if they can convince Cecil B. DeMille (Carl Sanderson) who currently thinks her writing sucks. Gillis is meanwhile secretly in love with fellow writer Betty Schaefer (Molly Lynch), due to marry his friend Artie Green (Barney Wilkinson), despite selling out for the golden ticket. Boastful rather than humiliated that Desmond is keeping him, is there anything he won’t do to achieve career success, and is there anything the besotted Desmond won’t do to stop him getting away from 10086 Sunset Boulevard? The grand old Bristol Hippodrome, designed by Frank Matcham, has to be the perfect tour stop for this superb revival of a musical legend.
Sunset Boulevard at Bristol Hippodrome until 13th January 2018 as part of a wider UK tour. For more information dates and venues, and to book tickets please visit the website.