Sunset Boulevard review starring Glenn Close at the London Coliseum
The night after winning the Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in opera, the English National Opera orchestra proved its popular mettle by putting 48 of its musicians on the stage of the London Coliseum to lend a sweeping operatic grandeur to one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most dramatic scores, drenched in lush romanticism.
It’s probably safe to say that, with a luxurious orchestra under the baton of regular Lloyd Webber musical director Michael Reed, this enveloping score has never sounded richer. It is certainly different to the show’s last West End outing at the Harold Pinter Theatre in 2008, which had only a company of actor-musicians.
While some may frown that ENO resources and subsidy are being employed to service what is essentially a commercial venture – with opera-scale pricing of up to £150 a ticket – the venture has integrity and musical rigour.
The original 1993 London world premiere of the show famously ditched its original star Patti LuPone for Glenn Close a year later for its Broadway premiere. This bona fide movie star, who had originated the show in LA, brought an authentic Hollywood allure to the fabled story as the once famous Norma Desmond desperately seeks a comeback.
Now Close is part of the revival, 22 years after she won a Tony award for the role. As Norma Desmond herself might put it, this is not so much a comeback as a return; in the interim, she’s hardly been idle. This is being billed as her West End debut, though she previously appeared on the London stage in a 2002 production of A Streetcar Named Desire at the National Theatre, playing Blanche DuBois.
Close is also no stranger to musicals: she was Tony nominated in 1980 for her supporting role in the original production of Barnum and also featured in the short-lived 1976 Richard Rodgers musical Rex opposite Nicol Williamson. Her vocal instrument may not be as sharp as it once was, nor she could ever compete with LuPone in the coloratura stakes, even in 1994, but she brings an utterly ferocious intensity to the part and the songs.
She is sensationally paired here with Michael Xavier, who has steadily ascended the ranks of leading men in the West End to occupy the top rung, and who, in a second-act curtain-raiser, emerges out of a pool in just swimming trunks to prove that he still has the youthful appeal that he once brought to Sky in Mamma Mia!. Xavier plays the aspiring screenwriter who finds himself drawn into a fatally co-dependent relationship with the much older Norma, yet also falls for Siobhan Dillon’s sweetly voiced Betty Shaeffer.
Director Lonny Price’s production, on simple series of interconnecting metal stairways, gives it momentum and drama. Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book lacks humour, but their lyrics occasionally come to the rescue.