by Tony Phillips
Any realtor worth his salt knows the bigger the house, the more staging required. It’s why one sees celebrity realtors on television spending hundreds of thousands of dollars furnishing big, empty piles to jazz them up for potential buyers. How Sunset Boulevard set designer James Noone forgot this golden rule and got over with his minimal, industrial erector set of a manse that sits on the titular boulevard baffles. But at the performance I attended, the production’s luminous Glenn Close as Norma Desmond tripped ever so slightly during her grand staircase entrance.
When your star is stumbling around like Mr. Magoo on a construction site, it’s perhaps time to rethink and restore silent film star and batty recluse Norma Desmond’s tumble-down Versailles to some John Napier’s original grandeur. Not to mention the black and white, gothic glory of “10086 Sunset Boulevard” in Billy Wilder’s original 1950 film that tracked the delusional “return” of a once legendary star aided by her ad-hoc, pool-boy lothario, Joe Gillis, played here in all his baby-oiled glory by Michael Xavier.
One of the most brilliant things about Wilder’s original script is it begins with Desmond standing her ground and shooting Gillis, who tumbles into her pool, only to circle back to the murder at the end when it all seems fresh again. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical version [lyrics by bookwriter Don Black and Christopher Hampton] begins on the same note, but younger viewers of this minimal staged production could mistake the opening of Xavier suspended above the stage on flywires only to be jerked into the rafters as Broadway’s latest Marvel Comics entertainment and not the indelible story of a star who is “big, it’s the pictures that got small.”
But enough burying the lead. That is, essentially, what Sunset Boulevard is all about, with its star buried under gossamer, Chinoiserie silks and dust, but the turbaned hat trick here is Close reprising her Tony-winning turn from over two decades ago. And it is the season’s not-to-be-missed star turn. Before she belts “As If We Never Said Goodbye”—her Act I “With One Look” is the show’s only other signature number—upon her return to the Paramount lot where she tries to foist her whale of a script for Salome—the tween temptress played by herself, natch—onto Cecil B. DeMille, she bonds with a spot operator from her glory days. She hits her mark, he hits her with a rosy pink and she simply dazzles all the way to the last balcony with only the blank, alabaster canvas of her face. The following number receives a rousing ovation that threatens to stop the show, but it feels like applause for the look that preceded the singing.
And that’s perhaps Close all over. The acting is better than the voice, but the voice is still top-notch. The material hasn’t aged well since its original production, let alone the 1950s classic, but Close has. In our post-cougar economy, Norma and her pool-boy, script doc would probably wind up on a Real Housewives franchise. Oh, she killed him? Even better. So that the struggle to comeback—“I hate that word,” Desmond chides, “it’s a return!”–is predicated on a much earlier time when women had sell-by dates. Gloria Swanson was only fifty when she indelibly portrayed Desmond’s fading star, but here, twenty years her senior, a red-wigged Close comes off like a gussied up, glamorous Sandra Bernhard even when she’s supposed to have hit the depths of her Act II crazy. Still, if the primary problem with this production is the house, Close takes care of that neatly by bringing it down every night.
Editor’s Note: Sunset Boulevard has been extended 10 weeks through June 25, 2017. For more information visit: Palace Theatre, Broadway & 47th Street,