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Sunset Boulevard: London Coliseum

April 20, 2016

Pictured, L-R: Michael Xavier, Glenn Close, Siobhan Dillon, Fred Johanson in rehearsal.
(Photo credit: Richard Hubert Smith)

(seen at the afternoon performance on 16th April 2016).

23 years, or half a lifetime or so ago – it feels – I saw the original cast at the Adelphi Theatre at their first matinee after press night. The tale had me hooked, and I saw Patti Lupone’s final matinee (the one where she gave us a concert to cover time needed to release a jammed curtain and get the show running again), Betty Buckley and Elaine Paige over the years. To see this once more on a huge stage, with star leads and full orchestra was an unmissable opportunity, so I grabbed it… and I’m so glad I did.

This is impeccably, and I mean, impeccably directed by Lonny Price, and staged by Linnit & Grade. The advertising suggests a “semi-staged” performance. Frankly, I’ve seen less staging in a full West End run. Think “Chicago” and you have a similar design concept, but a far larger cast and more props. And did I mention the orchestra?

A framework of galleries and two staircases, one side simple, the other elaborate, weave around the sides and above the orchestra. In a vast open space in front, action unfolds with well-selected props and projections used as required. James Noone and Tracy Chrisensen / Anthony Powell (set and costumes) should be proud. Only a dud “spider on a string” corpse is a misjudgement, though amusing for those in the balcony who have to stare at it throughout the show, perhaps.

Glenn Close means I can “tick off” another Norma I have seen. Not able to hit the diva heights (or musical notes) of Patti Lupone, but certainly able to find deep meaning in “As If We Never Said Goodbye” and engaging – and keeping despite homicide – our sympathy from “With One Look” onwards. A beautiful performance.

Even more engaging is the wonderful Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, writer and victim of Desmond. His survival instinct and selfish exterior, which often overwhelm the character, are here shown for what they are – simple protection against the harshness of Hollywood life. We believe that he has seen the underside of the dream, yet chooses it anyway. With Siobhan Dillon (Betty Schaefer) they make one of my favourite Lloyd Webber / Black numbers “Too Much In Love To Care” even more the Rogers & Hammerstein II tribute that I think it is. To see Ms Dillon looking so well and producing such an attractively driven Schaefer is another delight.

Fred Johanson as Max gives us the perfect “Greatest Star Of All.” Butler, castoff, yet steadfast in all things. If he’d had the breaks of DeMille (Julian Forsyth’s witty, truthful performance is remarkable) who knows.

A word for the superbly used chorus of the ENO; the “New Year’s Eve” party sequence of drunken actresses hoping for a better year was a joy. Even funnier, their exuberant “party poppers” fired streamers high into the proscenium arch at the end of Act One. This lead to a fabulous “Laurel and Hardy” tribute cameo by the stage crew, who sent a pair out during the interval with an almost too short ladder to retrieve it. Naturally, when they finally succeeded, the Great British Public duly rewarded them with an ironic round of applause.

Contrasting with the humour, Price produced two of my favourite sequences ever on a stage. To shadow a dancing couple during “The Perfect Year” was haunting and inspired, to create a montage at the end of act two was neigh-on perfect theatre. In a show which is, ultimately, rather a cold story, finding raw emotion is an impressive achievement.

I couldn’t help but wonder why this couldn’t transfer to the London Palladium, the perfect dream-palace setting for this living fantasy with a rotten core. If economics mean we’ll never see this show again in this lavish and appropriate a production, that’s sad, but gosh, I’m so pleased we have been given this all to brief moment to experience ‘the magic in the making’ just once more as it should be seen.

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