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Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, this musical version has songs by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Don Black. Transferring from The Watermill Theatre in Newbury this version is an actor-musician production. The cast is the orchestra and the orchestra is the cast. The show was directed by the Strictly Come Dancing judge, Craig Revel Horwood and ran from December 2008 - end of May 2009. No tour is looking likely now unfortunately. I will post this review in case a tour does go ahead and as a useful review on the musical in general.
I think this is one of ALW's best scores - and certainly his best of the past 20 years. My favourite songs included "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye". It may not be quite as good as Phantom of the Opera or Cats but it's probably my third favourite. There is lots of drama in the show, with the aging actress paired off with the young screen writer, some very thoughtful moments but also a few humorous scenes to lighten the mood. There are quite a few big ensembles pieces in the show which also have a real party feel about them. The real highlight is the 13 minute long climax of the show which wraps it up nicely and leaves you feeling just a little unsettled. It's a bold, brash, heart-breaking and very dramatic conclusion.
Secondly, onto this production. All the cast I thought were terrific and instruments and actors blended perfectly - this was particularly notable in the ensemble performances like "Let's Have Lunch". There are only 13 in the cast and some slight doubling up of roles, but it's pretty easy still to know who's who. Again, the business and 'buzz' of being inside paramount I think is conveyed quite nicely - the small cast not detracting in the slightest. It proves you don't need masses of people to make it work as I thought 13 people for the 'big' scenes would be way too few.
The stage is cleverly designed with a piano doubling up as a pipe organ and as Joe's writing desk. There's also a cleverly disguised drum kit.
Katherine Evans played Norma very well, it was a pity she didn't play an instrument though (I suppose the role was possibly too big to allow this). I was also very impressed by Ben Goddard's (playing Joe) rendition of the title song, which was also brilliantly orchestrated. He also spends a bit of time on the piano. All the other cast were great as well and I can't really fault any of them. Laura Pitt-Pulford played Betty and marked her first appearance in the west end - well, it certainly went well.
I have a few minor gripes including the entrance music for act two being too similar to the overture and a verse cut from Norma's "final scene". "As If We Never Said Goodbye" is beautifully performed, but you don't quite get the atmosphere - the theatre is normally completely dark with just the single spotlight on Norma. With this production the lights aren't dimmed and the ensemble/ orchestra are a bit of a distraction. Ticket prices were awfully high as well, I paid £54 for back stalls, front stall tickets cost over £60.
The programme was £3 and contained cast bios, background information on the show and production, but no photos - I don't think I would have bought one if I had known this. Also what's not mentioned is what instruments each character plays which would have been nice.
There were rumours this production was going to go on tour. Sadly, these don't seem to have been realised as it's not a bad musical (10 year original run I think in the west end) and the way this stage show is done has been a great novelty.
The first thing I had heard about this production was that it was being directed by Craig Revel Horward - the nasty judge from BBC's Strictly Come Dancing (the one who also comes out with the most constructive and least hyperbolic comments, in my opinion).
I knew Sunset Boulevard had been made into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber but had missed it the first time round. I can't say I'm drawn to some of his works - Jesus Christ Superstar had the messiah upstaged by Judas, Starlight Express seemed so selfindulgent and if I hear Memory one more time...
I can forgive everything because he brought The Phantom of the Opera to the stage and he has done a lot to revitalise the West End with The Sound of Music, Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and Oliver!
Sunset Boulevard is based on the 1950 film of the same name, written and directed by Samuel 'Billy' Wilder. It stared William Holden as Joe Gillis and Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond. The latter is a faded and reclusive silent movie star, with the former a new writer trying to break into Hollywood. The dog-eat-dog world of the movies is as true today as it was back then, meaning the themes still resonate with a modern audience. The film was a superb example of the noir genre, from the narrative voice-over of a dead body through to Norma's dillusional walk down the staircase.
It is always a tough job translating a piece of art from one form to another and putting this story on stage could have led to a very poor, amateur-looking whodunnit play. I was unfamiliar with Lloyd Webber's music, and found it disappointing, humourless and unmemorable but you need to watch this play for the acting.
Revel Horwood's choreography and the performances of the entire case were nothing short of stunning. In most other shows the performers and musicians are distinct. In some, such as Grease or Chicago, the musicians feature as performers within the story, usually as minor characters. In Sunset Boulevard, the musicians are the actors. They sing, dance, play and deliver dialogue often at the same time as plucking, blowing or banging. They also move some of the set. I was blown away!
Kathryn Evans was excellent as Norma Desmond. She radiated that middle-aged desperation the part needs, delivering Norma's songs with passion and anguish. She was the only performer who didn't also play a musical instrument - but she did have a rather precarious staircase to contend with.
Ben Goddard, as Joe, turned from Hollywood hopeful to self-congratulatory toy-boy with ease. How he can turn out that performance eight times a week is amazing. He truly was all-singing, all-dancing.
The remainder of the company complement superb musical prowess with credible performances - something that the West End frequently lacks. Revel Horwood's influence is clear in the tight choreography which includes ballroom and latin steps as well as some superb theatrical devices - slow motion dance sequences, combined with eerie music and effective lighting create some truly haunting moments.
The stage is fairly simple by West End standards. The small space has to accommodate the musicians and their instruments, being so integral to the show. The central feature is Norma Desmond's famous staircase and it does maintain the feel of a film set. There is also some clever use of projection. The Comedy Theatre was small, but charming and with better leg room than some flea-pits.
The negatives are, as I said, mostly to do with Lloyd Webber's music. The theatre itself suffers from that all-to-familiar West End problem of being unfit for purpose. Too much use of smoke and poor ventilation made my eyes sting, and the temperature of the auditorium made me nod off a couple of times. Based on the material Revel Horwood was working with, he created a superb piece of theatre.
It was very disappointing seeing such an empty auditorium but I don't think it's a show likely to pull people in. It doesn't have the humour of Cabaret, or the family appeal of The Lion King. It's got a mediocre score and a soulless story. What it does have is an incredible display of performers' versatility and a director who knows what they want without relying on technical effects. I don't think it will be on for very long, and young kids will hate you for taking them (because you forgot to get The Lion King tickets), but it is excellently put together and shows, in my opinion, that you can polish a turd.
---------- Show Information ----------
Showing from Monday 22 December 2008 to Saturday 18 April 2009
Official Website: http://www.ambassadortickets.com/896/667/london/ComedyTheatre/SunsetBoulevard
(this will give you an idea of ticket prices, but shop around to pick up the best deals)
Norma Desmond was the greatest silent movie star of them all, until the advent of the talkies made her a has-been. Joe Gillis was a struggling screenwriter until, by chance, he pulled his car into the driveway of 10086 Sunset Boulevard, home to the reclusive Miss Desmond. This chance encounter would change their lives, forever.