Review: Sunset Boulevard, Comedy Theatre

Tuesday 9 December 2008

sunsetboulevard“You can’t write a musical about Sunset Boulevard,” Billy Wilder is said to have told Stephen Sondheim. “It has to be an opera. After all, it’s about a dethroned queen” (We’re not going to insult your intelligence with links to SB, BW or SS – you know what/who they are).

Sondheim got the message but if Andrew Lloyd Webber had any qualms he overcame them and – unhappily – another hit was born, Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Betty Buckley, Petula Clark and Rita Moreno (ditto) being among the luminaries who have given their close-up, Mr De Mille.

Now, cards on the table. The Whingers have never been struck by Mr Lloyd Webber’s work and they tend to steer well-clear of sung-through musicals. They also believe that Sunset Boulevard is a classic film that no-one has any right to mess with (for heaven’s sake; at this rate they’ll be staging All About Eve next!) but they gallantly overcame all these prejudices and more in order to take a trip down Sunset Boulevard at the Comedy Theatre.

Why? Well, this horse is from the Watermill stable where John Doyle and Sarah Travis (the first woman to win a Tony Award for Orchestration, incidentally) developed the idea of musicals without an orchestra in which the actors play the instruments. It worked so well with Sweeney Todd that it transferred to the West End and on to Broadway.  Travis has arranged Sunset Boulevard too (and very well, especially “Perfect Year”) but the director, strangely, is Strictly Come Dancing judge Craig Revel Horwood*.

Now the Whingers always think there’s something very fascinating, charming and alive about having actors play the musical instruments on stage. How do they do it without sheet music?  Do they get paid twice? How do the understudies cope? Isn’t it awfully difficult to do both well?

The answer to the last question is “yes” in this case. The acting is fine and the musicianship fine but what a palaver to do both at the same time. Poor Alexander Evans (as the studio head Sheldrake) valiantly attempts to  look nonchalant as he holds a conversation with Joe Gillis (Ben Goddard) while playing the double bass at the same time but he might as well have been tossing pancakes on a unicycle.

The instruments simply get in the way. Later, when the orchestra gets the chance to sit down and the principals sing, some magic asserts itself but for the most part it is just too frantic, not helped by the ALW’s grating recetative (to be operatic about it).

With CRH directing one might expect a lot of dancing but there’s practically none apart from a couple of tangos (sadly neither of which feature John Sergeant) which are quite charming. There are also some interesting sections in which the cast slow-mo which should be awful but is actually quite effective.

But it’s the staging which drags the whole thing down. It’s one thing having an intimate and minimal set for a barbers shop but quite another when you have to suggest the palatial mansion of a rich and glamorous Hollywood star, especially if you only have an unstable metal spiral staircase to work with. Plus the whole thing is delivered in monochrome (presumably because the film was) which isn’t really what you want from a musical.

The opening “shot” of the film was reproduced very effectively in the original production (indeed, it’s the only thing Andrew can remember about that; certainly not any of the songs) but here it is ineffective – in fact it’s invisible from the front stalls. Luckily the Whingers had planted a spy in the circle who reported back that the swimming pool was projected onto the stage and was visible from the circle.

That was of little consolation to one in their party who had never seen the film (yes, that’s what we said; amazing, but true) and who was rather confused as to what had just happened, if anything.

Story-wise, somewhere along the line Sunset Boulevard has turned into Sunset Cul-de-Sac. Whereas William Holden’s Joe under Billy Wilder was disgusted with his descent into toyboy, here he’s rather smug about it so it’s hardly tragic when Norma shoots Gillis in the rear of the stalls. At this point there is a splash from the back of the auditorium and a pause during which, sadly, no-one blurted out, “He’s fallen in the water!” in a Goon voice which would have provided some welcome relief from the relentlessly humourless tone of the book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black**; Sunset Boulevard (the movie) may not be packed with gags but it is playful.

Never mind, just at the crucial moment when Kathryn Evans was about to launch into her big final scene on the staircase some dickhead’s mobile phone went off which did introduce a welcome frisson into the proceedings.

Sometimes the production pushes too far towards Gothic camp (yes, there is such a thing). Even Dave Willetts as Max, who is very good, comes across as a bit Bela Lugosi every now and then and there’s some manic activity on the keyboards which put several in the party in mind of Vincent Price as Dr Phibes.

sunset-boulevard-ben-goddard-kathryn-evansSo what about Norma Desmond? Well, Kathryn Evans (aka Mrs Peter Purves) makes an odd artistic choice foregoing an American accent in favour of something altogether more English. Sometimes it’s difficult to see her Norma for Margot Leadbetter. But she packs a punch and gives a commanding final staircase scene and some very good singing. “Just One Look”** got enthusiastic applause.

Indeed, the big numbers are well sung: As If We Never Said Goodbye” got a very good reception and if “Too Much in Love to Care” seemed to have far too much acting going on in it, it was bold and quite brilliant. Laura Pitt-Pulford as Betty Schaefer is very lively.

And the verdict? Well, it’s no one’s fault really so we’ll put it down to misadventure.

Footnotes

* In case you – like Andrew – are a bit hazy about the existence of Craig Revel Horwood you can read more about him than you would ever want to know in this article in the Standard.

** Don Black wrote the lyrics to some WEW favourites:”Born Free”, “To Sir With Love” (“but how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume?”) and “Diamonds Are Forever” but disappointingly did not prove himself equal to finding a rhyme for “vicuña”, a Peruvian mammal which receives several mentions in the show.

*** Strangely, two in the Whingers’ party were suffering from eye complaints;  one was on his first outing since a retinal detachment and another had a cyst on one eyeball so Norma’s song “With One Look” took on a special significance. Phil dissuaded Andrew, who was feeling a tad left out, from coming dressed as Bette Davis in The Anniversary.

12 Responses to “Review: Sunset Boulevard, Comedy Theatre”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    Andrew, the snow on this page makes me think I’m aging even faster than I really am and my eyes are totally falling apart. I just spent two minutes trying to figure out if I was going completely nuts or if the letters on this page were really forming and reforming themselves in a streaky pattern.

    At any rate you do make me glad I chose to take my uncle to see the Darwin exhibit at the Natural History Museum instead of seeing this show. Even though I would have very much enjoyed your witty company, it’s poor consolation when you’re dealing with a major turkey and your wallet’s just been emptied out to boot.

  2. Mark I Says:

    Cocoon ya?
    Petunia?
    Junior?
    Tune yer…?

    (Actually, I have to confess, I don’t really know how to pronounce “vicuña”, which would be a good start before trying to find rhymes for it.)

  3. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    Musicalise a classic and ruin yer…?

  4. Sue Says:

    For better or worse, I can sing the vicuña line even now, not having seen or heard Sunset Boulevard in years!

    As for musician actors, I recall that when John Doyle’s Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway a few years ago, Patti LuPone was officially added in the musicians’ union listings as a tuba player!

    And I would just like to add that I wish wish wish that the Watermill’s production of Merrily We Roll Along from earlier this year would transfer, because I absolutely loved it.

  5. Sir Andrew Lloyds Credit Crunch Says:

    P.S. I love that you’ve tagged Peter Purves… Was he at the perf? Or had he made one earlier?

  6. J.A. Says:

    I think he made the corpse and the staircase.


  7. I saw a matinee performance of Sunset on Xmas eve.

    Basically this summed up for me one of the most disappointing
    musical theatre years ever.

    Except for Zorro which at least had some life and bounce the rest of the offerings have been half baked failures.

    The Evening Standard Award critics gave Best Musical to
    an obscure production of Kurt/weill’s opera Street Scene
    at the Young Vic which i am sure very few Musical Theatre
    enthusiast have seen-again why not even consider the best of the bunch-Zorro? How blooming elitist can you get?

    Back to my gripe about Sunset Boulevard. Firstly I think that the multi skilled musician/actor/dancer/sceneshifter multi skilling of the cast which is a”house speciality” of the Watermill
    Productions has run it’s course.

    A few years ago their Sweeney Todd at the Trafalgar studios
    just about cut the mustard as it was fresh and innovative and quirky to say the least i.e cut out the barber’s cut throat and just replace with buckets of blood etc

    However the cracks are now starting to show.No one can deny the artistry and skill of the cast and their multi skilled endeavours,but this very much is the factor that distracts from
    the flow of the drama. At times the visual impact of Norma’s
    descent down the rickety spiral staircase and the lonelines of the character are thrown off course by the sight of a varied
    array of musical instruments muscling in on her solitude.

    At £64 top price I am afraid that the London punters will feel “short changed” this time round. The strong points are
    Kathryn Evans Norma Desmond and Dave Willets creepy Manservant/husband Max. Sadly I found Ben Goddard’s Joe
    Gillis rather underpowered but was impressed with the beauty
    of Laura Pitt-Pullford’s Betty Schaefer I could easily see her stepping into chicago and more on the London Stage.

    To sum up what a mediocre and unexciting musical theatre
    year this has been and as we enter 2009 I cannot see much of promise on the horizon but who knows we may be surprised
    one never knows.

  8. Begging the Beguine Says:

    My apologies.

    The dickhead

    PS. I think theatres should remind forgetful punters to turn their phones off as a matter of course.

  9. mandy Says:

    Just seen Sunset Boulevard. So disappointing. The lyrics are terrible and the music is grating after awhile it often sounds that it has been lifted out of Phantom!! The choregraphy was superb as was the way they integrated their instruments into various props.
    The second main character was the sofa!!
    The lead singer was superb especially as she sung the one memeorable song in the whole show with superb technical flair. A real treat for a musician to hear.but… Where were the other enjoyable songs??????


  10. Hey I saw this today and we sat in the royal circle ( which is the 3rd level up above the dress circle?!?!?! Which was confusing) it was pretty empty so me and my mum moved from our seats in the 3rd row to a great view in the 2nd row!

    Anyway i found the actors with the instruments bloody annoyin i’d rather an orchestra under the stage but it was Ok not good.

    We Had A Standing ovation of the whole theatre when Kathryn Evans came on for her final curtain she was amazing!
    She was brilliant!

    Overall its worthseeing but make sure u get the best seats cos there are many restricted views!

    7/10 (Added another point for Kathryn)

    From Daniel!

  11. susan ellway Says:

    Quite agree re Kathryn Evans’ performance, saw her first at Watermill and then couple of weeks ago at Comedy. Am going again to matinee this Weds!

  12. Boris Says:

    Well, well, well, WEW should know better.

    There IS an “All About Eve” musical – Applause opened in 1970 on Broadway starring Lauren Bacall (in her musical debut) as Margo Channing.

    Sorry, I simply could not resist correcting you, for most, well not most but rather ALL the time I am impressed by your knowledge of facts and trivia.


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