This website uses cookies. If you continue to use the site, your agreement will result in cookies being set.

Sunset Boulevard

Review by Stan Friedman
February 16, 2017

Glenn Close is this generation's Shirley Jones. Both have become famous by creating signature roles across film, television and the stage for decades. But where Ms. Jones is the embodiment of wholesomeness, from Marian the Librarian through Mrs. Partridge, Ms. Close will best be remembered for her dark side. From her bunny boiling in Fatal Attraction to her cold blooded Patty Hewes on Damages to her current role as the hopelessly delusional Norma Desmond in this spitfire revival of Sunset Boulevard, she has mastered the art of bringing controlled madness to her method.

Of all the big names attached to this production, the most important is Billy Wilder. The 1950 film which he co-wrote and directed is so chock full of bullet-proof source material - weird characters, classic lines, unforgettable freeze frames - it is impossible not to be entertained by any decent adaptation. Thus, we are given Norma, the rich and famous silent movie queen, now friendless and lost in her own dreams of grandeur, when not mourning the loss of her pet chimpanzee. And there is Max (Fred Johanson) her faithful, Germanic man servant who harbors enough suppressed emotions to deserve a musical of his own. And there is Joe (Michael Xavier), the struggling screenwriter with some serious self-esteem issues who stumbles into Norma's life, becomes her new trained chimp for all intents and purposes, and milks it for all he can.

An early, defining moment in the story has Joe saying to Norma, "You used to be big," to which she famously responds, "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." But, unlike Gloria Swanson in the film, Ms. Close, under the clever direction of Lonny Price, is smaller than life. She might think of herself as huge, but her many costumes (beautiful and crazy, as designed by Tracy Christensen) overwhelm her, as does the towering proscenium of the ornate Palace Theater. With her petite, 5'5" frame, Ms. Close waddles more than she struts. Her Norma is not a crazed monster, she's a wilted Blanche DuBois bereft of the kindness of strangers.

Mr. Johanson is fabulous as Max, with his deep voice miraculously ranging into falsetto territory as he sings the affectionate ode to his boss, "The Greatest Star of All." As Joe, Mr. Xavier has the hardest role and is the show's weakest link. He serves as narrator while simultaneously submitting to Norma and wooing the much more age-appropriate Betty (the thoroughly charming Siobhan Dillon). But, lacking the necessary stage presence, he comes across as your average nice guy who can carry a tune respectably. His Joe reminded me a lot of Sid, the good guy love interest in a different musical, The Pajama Game. Turns out Mr. Xavier indeed played Sid on the West End in 2014.

The 1994 original Broadway production of Sunset was mocked for its extravagant set design and I can certainly understand the impulse to go big here. But this production team goes minimal, mostly relying on a framework of stairs and platforms, with the occasional black and white film projection. There are no opulent mansion walls. Instead, we get something much better: a 40 piece on-stage orchestra giving glorious voice to Andrew Lloyd Webber's score.

Norma was not the only diminished grand dame to be found on the night I attended. Five minutes before curtain, Hillary Clinton swept into the theater and was met with a standing ovation. Her presence resulted in a magical moment. During the show-stopping applause for Ms. Close after she delivered her knockout rendition of "As if We Never Said Goodbye," (where the spotlight finds Norma and she blossoms like a sun starved Lily), there was a palpable feeling of the applause shifting toward Ms. Clinton, if just for a moment, as lyrics like "So watch me fly, we all know I can do it" reverberated in our collective consciousness. One could not help but think that if only Norma had had an email server and Hillary had not, they both would have been much happier.

(Stanford Friedman)

"Yes, Hollywood's most fatally narcissistic glamour girl, Norma Desmond, is back in town, in the pared-down revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Sunset Boulevard' that opened on Thursday night. It is a show that exists almost entirely to let its star blaze to her heart's content. The light she casts is so dazzling, this seems an entirely sufficient reason to be."
Ben Brantley for New York Times

"Glenn Close is ready for her close-up in "Sunset Boulevard" — and then some... If a few vocals are strained, Close commands the stage in this concert production from the English National Opera."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News

"Those who go to see Close reprise her celebrated turn in the musical's 1994 Broadway production will not be disappointed."
Adam Feldman for Time Out New York

"Ultimately, it's Close's return that is this revival's reason for being, and the rapturous audience reaction makes it clear that despite the plethora of talented actresses who have starred in the musical before and since — Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Diahann Carroll and Elaine Page, among them — she owns the role. Now all we need is a film adaptation before she ages out of the part."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter

"Glenn Close makes a triumphant return to the star role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Sunset Boulevard,' a once-in-a-lifetime role that won her a Tony Award in 1995. Ever an elegant actress, she's positively regal in the English National Opera production which won her kudos on the West End last year and will play a limited 16-week run at the Palace Theater — a fitting setting for this star."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Daily News - Time Out - Hollywood Reporter - Variety

Originally published on