"Sunset Boulevard" is big. It's the musicals that got small.
Once upon a time in the 1980s and '90s, bigger was better on the Great White Way. It was the era of the British mega-musical, and imports like "Cats," "Phantom of the Opera," and "Miss Saigon" dominated the Broadway Boards. The last big hit of this trend was Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," which, like the aforementioned shows, is back on the New York stage in a brilliantly re-imagined production by director Lonny Price with its original Broadway star Glenn Close.
Much and little have changed in the two decades that "Sunset Boulevard" has been missing from the Broadway stage.
The plot remains the same. Down on his luck film writer Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), escaping a pair of repo men, ditches his car in the garage of a Hollywood mansion owned by Norma Desmond (Glenn Close), a late-middle-aged reclusive star from the silent film era. She's planning a return (a term she prefers to "come back") to the screen. Under the guise of script doctor, Joe unwittingly becomes Norma's kept boy. Her delusions of both the nature of their relationship and state of her career ends up undoing both of them.
While the script and score are unchanged, what's most remarkably different this time around with "Sunset Boulevard," is the absence of the behemoth set that dominated the original production. Eschewing the hyper-realistic mansion that originally made its entrance from the flies, designer James Noone has crafted an MC Escheresque labyrinth of black steel scaffolds and steps inside a giant soundstage. All of this is accented handsomely by Mark Henderson's film noir-like lighting design.
Freed by the encumbrance of massive scenery, director Price allows the audience to focus on Lloyd Webber's score which is brilliantly executed by conductor Kristen Blodgette and an on stage orchestra made up of a record-breaking 40 pieces.
Also a welcome change is Price's emphasis on the sardonic aspects evident in Billy Wilder's satirical dark screenplay that were missing from original director Trevor Nunn's treatment of book writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton's stage adaptation.
"We didn't need words. We had faces," snaps Norma. It's one of the more famous lines from the piece that, thanks to over-the-top drag queenery of whomever is inhabiting Norma's iconic turban at the time, almost never fails to get a chuckle.
And yet, in this low tech production, the quote weighs particularly relevant. There's little need for words with a score (although widely uneven in parts) that contains some of the most sweeping music of Lloyd Webber's illustrious career, and the face in question belongs to none other than Glenn Close, in her return to the role that won her a Tony Award 22 years ago.
And what a face it is. Self-delusional, fragile, manic, caged, euphoric and scores of other complex emotions all inhabit Close's visage which seemingly can project to the back row of even the grandest of movie palaces. If her Norma is "ready for her close up," it's because the audience can't tear their eyes off of her.
And while as an actress, Close's Norma has become even more nuanced and thrilling, the same, sadly cannot be said of her singing voice. What was steely and strong two decades ago seems reedy at best and pitchy at worst this go around. This, however, works for and against the piece, making her Norma more fragile, but regrettably deprives the audience the full range of some of Lloyd Webber's best crafted melodies.
"Sunset Boulevard" will never be a perfect show. The material soars when the characters are within the artificial world of the movie studio or Norma's mansion, but sinks everywhere else. In the latter case, having a big set was a welcome distraction.
As a small consolation, "Sunset Boulevard" originalists who miss the floating set can take heart in the future of the Palace Theater which plays host to this revival. After the show ends its limited engagement, the Nederlander Organization which owns the former vaudeville house, will shut down the theater for a $2 billion renovation which will lift the Palace 29 feet off ground level to make room for 70,000 square feet of Times Square retail space. So in a way, the ghost Norma's mansion will one day fly again.
"Sunset Boulevard" is playing at the Palace Theater (Broadway at 47th Street) for a strictly limited engagement through June 25. For tickets and information, visit www.sunsetboulevardthemusical.com