A musical of outsized passions as only Andrew Lloyd Webber could compose, Sunset Boulevard trades in hyperbole. "The greatest star of all," in the words of Max, her homme d'affaires, Norma Desmond is camp drama queen extraordinaire. With Glenn Close in the role, reprising her Tony-winning performance of 22 years ago at the Palace Theater, Norma is petit as she is large. Need dominates her manipulations so acutely, only the powerhouse chops of the actress who put the word fatal in Fatal Attraction could pull off this tour de force of fragility and grand delusion.
Descending a staircase on a set that also includes a 40 piece orchestra, spare enough to feature projections of old Hollywood, its streets, cars, and populace partying away, Norma Desmond is at home in a mansion of many rooms including one over the garage where Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier), a down on his luck writer comes to reside, entrapped in her web. She wants Joe to help stage a comeback, oops: she prefers return, to stardom. One day, as they visit Cecil B. DeMille's set, a lighting operator trains his spotlight on her. You see instantly the effect of attention on this faded beauty, unable to surrender to age and the vagaries of fame. Close brings to "As If We Never Said Goodbye," an aching glimpse into celebrity culture, once it leaves you in the shadows. Her final moments evoke Blanche Dubois' trust in the kindness of strangers. Set off by that famous readiness for her closeup, Norma Desmond takes the stairs with crumbling majesty, and a light, shattering dance across the stage.
Webber has the distinction of having four musicals currently on Broadway, Sunset Boulevard, with book by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, joining Phantom of the Opera, Cats, and School of Rock. On opening night this week, a crowd that included Bernadette Peters, Gabriel Byrne, Gayle King, William Ivey Long, Bob Balaban, and Lena Hall, filled the Palace to capacity. Cheers for Norma Desmond never stopped, for each solo, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's operatic music, its repetitions and treacly tropes ripening to crescendo.
The festivities moved on, despite the day's big snow: at Cipriani 42nd Street, Michael Xavier said the most difficult part of playing Joe Gillis was singing "Sunset Boulevard," because he had to pause, talk to the audience, and drink, then go back to the song. Fred Johanson, a bald Max, Norma's enabler said, his greatest challenge was holding back, not taking his fawning indulgence in "The Greatest Star of All," too far. Siobhan Dillon who plays Betty Schaeffer, Joe's writing partner and true love, said, she had to make the most of little stage time. "A performance for the ages," a theater insider enthused of Glenn Close's Norma Desmond: that praise did not feel like hyperbole.
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