Despite the heavy snowfall and cancelled shows on the previous two nights, I was lucky and the Wales Millennium Centre decided to go ahead with the Saturday matinee of the award-winning UK Tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical, Sunset Boulevard. Based on the 1950 American film of the same name, Sunset Boulevard returns to tour the UK depicting Norma Desmond, a fading movie star from the silent era struggling to adjust to the medium’s switch into vocal performances, as she meets Joe Gillis, a young screenwriter exploring what he’s willing to do for his big break, as their lives begin to reflect the world of their professions.
I will be honest here I purely booked this show because it is my mum’s favourite show. I had heard a couple of songs sung out of context at concert performances but I was going into this show completely blind regarding the story, the ordering, and context of the songs and even the characters. Therefore, this review is going to be a blend of reviewing both this specific touring production and the story and characters of Webber’s Sunset Boulevard as a whole.
This tour features Ria Jones returning to the role of Norma Desmond after originating the role at the 1991 Sydmonton Festival, even before Patti LuPone (1992 Sydmonton Festival and original 1993 West End cast). Her voice is genuinely amazing for this role. I couldn’t believe the notes she was hitting and her constancy throughout the show especially during ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’. However, in my opinion, her crowning moment is ‘With One Look’. Her astounding voice mixed with her comfortable acting in the role really obviously sets up Norma’s mood swings which range between subtle to extreme and the result is that these swings are connected to the character immediately and never seem out of place throughout the rest of the show.
Danny Mac steps up to veteran actress Ria Jones in the role of Joe Gillis. The level of construction required to create the smooth eccentricities of Norma could easily overshadow any actor attempting to sit alongside her as Joe, however, Mac and Jones work together to create two protagonists, one the audience follows and the other observed, completely equal in standing. I was very impressed by Mac’s voice and especially his stamina to sit comfortably within the role, knowing when to bring out a bigger voice for ‘Sunset Boulevard’ and ‘Too Much in Love to Care’, considering that he very rarely leaves the stage. Adam Pearce as Max Von Meyerling and Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer also ensure that neither of their roles is forgotten seamlessly constructing the wider complexities surrounding Norma and Joe with beautiful voices and likeable personalities.
I did have high expectations going into this tour as I was highly aware that only a few days ago it was awarded Best Regional Production at the 2018 What’s On Stage Awards. The production value did not disappoint in the slightest. The lighting and sound design throughout was stunning and seamlessly constructed the transitioning moods of Norma and Joe throughout the narrative. They were also especially beautiful when portraying rain and thunderstorms, proving that less is more in theatre. This production also made me like video projection during a show. This is incredibly rare as I normally hate when video projection is used as an easy way out of portraying something on the stage. However, this production got it right and while it did use video to portray realistic aspects of the setting, the surroundings of the car chases, for example, it was also used for more surrealist touches. My favourite of these came as Betty was driving to Norma’s mansion on Sunset Boulevard and the script of the previous scene was played over the setting as she drove, supporting the blurring of Norma’s life between film and reality. This, in my opinion, is the example that should be followed for the use of video projection in theatre.
I also can’t write this review without giving a special mention to the orchestra. The music of Sunset Boulevard is good in itself, however, this production shows just how much a brilliant orchestra can heighten and improve the music. It’s hard to describe but the volume and the pure sound were both just beautiful without overwhelming the actors and action on stage. As good as the performances were it was the orchestra which solidified my feelings of wanting to listen to the songs again after the show.
As a musical theatre fan going into this show near enough blind I will say that I did really enjoy the story. It was completely seamless and I did enjoy the very particular plot twists especially the main two regarding Max and Joe. The later I feel was very well constructed at the beginning of the show as the audience think they know something which ends up being manipulated later.
However, I do have some issues with the book of this musical. Please note here that even though I am reviewing specifically this touring production I am now talking about Norma and Joe as characters rather than Jones and Mac’s particular performances who I feel did excellent jobs with the characters provided for them by the book of the musical. I just didn’t feel that the narrative was doing a lot to build the character of Joe beyond his job and the fact that the narrative follows him. This lead to an Aladdin situation. To clarify when making the 1992 animated film, Disney animators had to ensure that they balanced the design of Aladdin between his ‘street rat’ exterior whilst still making it obvious why Jasmine would be interested in him romantically. It’s this that I don’t think Sunset Boulevard does very well. Beyond the fact that he is simply in her house there isn’t a lot of discussion out into either Norma or Joe’s motivation and inner thoughts regarding their particular connection or how it affects their actions later on. I feel that if Norma and Joe were given more depth and discussion then some of their actions would not seem as random or confusing.
The ending faces a similar issue. The ending is very ambiguous in this production and while I haven’t seen the film or any other productions I feel that it comes off as the wrong form of ambiguity. Please don’t get me wrong I love ambiguity in theatre, however, this example simply saw an ending that was too drawn out and didn’t have any particular impact or mention of anything that had happened previously and so the audience is just given two choices of interpretation to pick from at random rather than looking at specific evidence and arguing for one over the other.
Therefore, I did thoroughly enjoy this production as the actors, the music and the high production value really showed that older shows can be brought into the 21st century and to a modern audience and be very successful. However, my experience with specifically the narrative of the show was far more mixed and so I’m going to give the UK Tour of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard a four out of five-star rating.
Sunset Boulevard is reaching the end of its UK Tour but they still have venues in the UK still to come including, but not exclusive to, Canterbury, Wimbledon and Plymouth so book your tickets here.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Sunset Boulevard either from this review or your own opinion if you’ve seen it.
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