Savoy Theatre, London
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Directed by Jamie Lloyd
The essence of this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard is in its advertised titling, 'Sunset Blvd.' The 'Blvd.' a staccato spelling, stripped back, laid bare – Jamie Lloyd stamping his imprimatur not just upon the staging of the show, but on its publicity too. It is disappointing to note however that the credits for this production make no reference whatsoever to Billy Wilder who directed and co-wrote the 1950 Oscar-winner that was to spawn the musical. How fickle creatives can be.
Nicole Scherzinger steps up to play Norma Desmond, the famously faded Hollywood idol, an actress who decades after her heyday insists that she is still “big, it’s the pictures that got small”. Make no mistake – Scherzinger has a voice of anthemic, stadium-filling power and in some of Fabian Aloise’s dance routines, a sublime athleticism that unhelpfully belies her age. Considering that Desmond is meant to be the ultimate Hollywood has-been, for Scherzinger to move so amazingly across the stage suggests a woman close to the peak of her career, rather than in its deepest trough. She makes fine work of Desmond’s early solo number With One Look, but is found wanting in the second-act’s blockbuster As If We Never Said Goodbye. This latter number has the potential to leave an audience broken, such is its insight into the deluded Desmond’s return to Paramount Studios. Here however, whilst Scherzinger’s vocals are again magnificent it is hard to connect her performance with Desmond’s disconnected despair.
The final act’s lyrics have been changed to fit the leading lady – Black and Hampton wrote “nothing's wrong with being fifty, unless you're acting twenty.” In this show, the “fifty” is changed to “forty”, that only highlights the weakness in having cast Scherzinger (who in close-up looks fabulous in her forties) as the ageing diva. Much like Desmond's futile dream of playing Salome, has Lloyd cast Scherzinger in a role that is ultimately beyond her?
Distinctly minimalist, and under designer Soutra Gilmour’s vision, Lloyd’s actors are given no props to work with while on stage. The costuming and the staging is completely monochrome, a nod to the early days of Hollywood and there is some ingenious live video close-up work that reflects the show’s cinematic foundation. The black and white colour scheme works and makes for an exciting visual treat.
For no apparent reason the second half opens up backstage with a live video broadcast tracking the story's Hollywood screenwriter Joe Gillis (played by Tom Francis) as he zips through the cast’s dressing rooms before exiting out onto The Strand and back in to the Savoy Theatre, all while singing the title song. Impressive work for sure – but no explanation is offered for this brief movie-in-a show. And why, when Norma tells Joe that she’s got herself a revolver, are we shown a semi-automatic handgun placed on Scherzinger’s backstage dressing table? Sloppy detailing that undermines Lloyd's approach.
In keeping with Lloyd’s harsh interpretation the two songs that offer a touch of comedy amidst the noir (the ensemble numbers The Lady’s Paying and Eternal Youth Is Worth A Little Suffering) have been dropped. These excisions however don’t sit well alongside some of the the corny moments that have been incorporated into the video work. Down in the pit Alan Williams’ musical direction is magnificent, delivering a gorgeous interpretation of Lloyd Webber’s melodies.
This production of Sunset Boulevard will be remembered for its casting and its distinctive style. It’s a flawed interpretation for sure – but very entertaining. You won’t be bored.
Runs until 6th January 2024. Rachel Tucker plays the role of Norma Desmond on Mondays.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan