Sunday 27 December 2020

Sunset Boulevard in Concert - at Home - Review

Curve Theatre, Leicester


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Book & lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder film
Directed by Nikolai Foster

Ria Jones

Art can have a curious and fascinating evolution. In 1950, Billy Wilder’s noir movie, Sunset Boulevard scooped three Oscars, including the award for Best Story. Some forty years later Andrew Lloyd Webber together with Don Black and Christopher Hampton gave Wilder’s picture a Tony-winning musical theatre makeover. Now, driven by the pandemic and with the vision of director Nikolai Foster, that musical production has itself been helmed back to the screen.

The story is a cinema classic - of Norma Desmond, a reclusive Hollywood star of the long since faded Silent Movies era, who fate throws together with Joe Gillis, a hack screenwriter down on his luck.

At his Curve Theatre in Leicester, Foster directed a critically acclaimed touring version of the show in 2017 - and it was that production that in these restricted times was scheduled to be reprised in a concert format, live at the Curve over the 2020 festive season. Heightened rules intervened to forbid live performances in front of an audience, leading to the production being re-imagined for cameras and for streaming.

What makes this particular stream so delicious, is that the videographers are not just capturing the image of a show staged for the benefit of a live audience with the cameras as an “add-on”. Here, Foster has taken his company and his venue and then carefully and thoughtfully, blended classy camera work into the mix. The result is a fresh interpretation of this musical that makes for a glorious two-act entertainment.

This website reviewed Foster’s original take on the musical when it first opened - It was stunning then with an imaginative use of projections that conveyed not only Hollywood, but also served well as settings for a show designed to be taken on the road. These projections have been neatly woven into the streamed musical, giving a further aspect of authenticity to a tale that is so deeply rooted in Tinseltown’s Golden Age. But even more than the show’s vision, projections and use of the Curve’s adaptable cavernous space, what makes this musical such a gorgeous experience remains Foster’s carefully assembled cast, originally brought together in 2017 and who return, almost in the company’s entirety, to create this revival.

Much praise has deservedly been showered upon Ria Jones’ take on Norma Desmond, a woman driven by a fatal combination of narcissism and depression, unable to grasp that the arrival of the “talkies” had extinguished the flame of her stardom and such praise remains as true today. Jones, here finally in close-up, is compelling in her take on Desmond’s slide into insanity. Vocally magnificent - live, her versions of With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye were spine-tingling - she condenses the energy previously projected into auditoria, and focusses it squarely at the cameras, with a compelling intensity.

Danny Mac’s Joe Gillis is equally at ease, performing for the cameras as in the theatre. Mac’s grasp of Joe Gillis’ wry cynicism - a man who understands his circumstances with a compelling immediacy - remains as sharp as ever, with a combination of both strength and tenderness in his vocals.

The sub-plot between Gillis and studio script editor Betty Schaefer is beautifully nuanced between Mac and Molly Lynch’s Schaefer. Lynch captures both fire and fragility in her turn and in the show’s final act - as she realises the tragedy that’s unfolding before her eyes - in close up, offers a glimpse of her character’s scorching pain that only adds further shading to Schaefer's complexity. Alongside Lynch as a featured role, Adam Pearce’s Max, Desmond’s long-time butler, remains a treat, with Pearce’s resonant baritones delivering some of the narrative’s most pathos fuelled moments.

This streamed take would be virtually perfect were it not for a couple of minor snags in Foster’s direction. When, in his second act reprise of New Ways To Dream, Max delivers a shocking revelation about Desmond’s past, it would have added value to have seen Joe Gillis’ face as he learns this fact rather than having the cameras trained on Pearce. This of course will always be a flaw of a screened show - that one can only see in any scene what the director chooses to show us, rather than allowing one's vision an unfettered view of the tableau as played live on stage. Likewise, and also in act two, there are moments of dialog spoken by Carl Sanderson’s (excellent) Cecil B. DeMille that should add a profound pathos and understanding to Desmond’s plight. Foster has allowed these lines to be spoken far too freely with the result that a degree of depth and nuance that deserved to have been tapped, is missed.

Above all, this re-translation of Sunset Boulevard, back to its filmic origins, is to be celebrated. The vision of Foster and his team at Curve, together with his top-notch creative and musical collaborators - now including the wizardry of Crosscut Media - have taken the cruel contemporary (and hopefully, short-lived)  imposition of social distancing and have worked around these legislative and safety-driven necessities to deliver a show that is as fresh and as moving as ever.

Traditionally, in the story’s final scene, Norma Desmond speaks her final words to the gathered press cameras assembled at her Sunset Boulevard mansion, mistaking them in her madness for a DeMille film crew. Here, amongst the deserted balcony of the Curve, and with only a (deliberately visible) Crosscut camera operator up close, the tragedy both of Norma's time and of our own is palpable and heart-breaking.

Go watch this show!

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

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