Lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Based on the Billy Wilder Film
Director: Stephen Pike
Musical Director: Sharon Tree
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan 8 -25 October 2014
Review by Len Power 8 October 2014
Based on the classic 1950 film starring Gloria Swanson, ‘Sunset Blvd.’ opened in London in 1993, played on Broadway in 1994 and in Melbourne in 1996. It tells of a chance encounter of a down at heel young screen writer, Joe Gillis, and a faded movie star from the silent era, Norma Desmond, who lives in a gloomy mansion surrounded by past memories. Agreeing to help with a film script she has written for a comeback, the opportunistic Joe allows himself to be drawn into a dangerous relationship with the delusional star.
It’s a formidable musical for non-professional companies to tackle because it cries out for lavish staging and must have an actress with star quality for the leading role of faded movie star, Norma Desmond. Happily, the Q Theatre production got well-known local actress and singer, Bronwyn Sullivan, to play the role and solved the lavishness question with a clever composite set filled with interesting detail by Brian Sudding and scenic artist, Ian Croker.
Bronwyn Sullivan sings the difficult role of Norma Desmond with assurance. Her Norma has flashes of niceness that may bother purists wanting a copy of Gloria Swanson’s performance in the film, but it didn’t detract from her performance for me. Daniel Wells is in fine voice and gives a strong performance as the opportunist writer, Joe Gillis. In the wrong hands, the difficult role of the mysterious butler, Max Von Mayerling, could be laughable, but Peter Dark is very believable in the role, giving it an impressive sadness and he sings with great precision. Vanessa De Jager is charming and very real as the young Betty Schaefer and the duet, ‘Too Much In Love To Care’, which she shares with Daniel Wells, is one of the highlights of the show.
Ensemble members, many playing multiple small roles, all have detailed individual characters which give the show depth, especially in the scenes at Paramount Studios and at a New Year’s Eve party. Calen Robinson was especially notable in the role of the oily tailor, Manfred, who is summoned with his team to provide Joe Gillis with new clothes.
Costumes by Miriam Miley-Read evoked the period extremely well. Her costumes for Norma Desmond were especially well-designed for a faded movie star who dresses lavishly in a jarringly out of date style. The expert lighting by Hamish McConchie gave the right atmosphere to the show and sound by Eclipse was well-balanced. Choreography isn’t a major feature of this show, but Annette Sharp provided polished and appropriate movement where required for the cast.
The show has a huge score. Musical director, Sharon Tree, has done a remarkable job with both orchestra and singers. It was, however, somewhat distracting having the musical director visible behind the set and lights visible from the music stands of the orchestra were annoyingly bright.
For me, it’s not the songs that stand out in this musical. I came away from ‘Sunset Blvd’ with the moody underscoring repeating in my mind, much the way a memorable film score stays with you. It’s as if the composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber, intended to write a cinematic-style musical. If so, he has succeeded and produced one of his best scores for the theatre.
Director, Stephen Pike, has done a fine job bringing all aspects of this show together. It hasn’t been presented in Canberra before and has been rarely done in Australia, so don’t miss this opportunity to see it.
Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 12 August 2014 from 5pm.