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Giving Face: Glenn Close’s Return to Broadway in ‘Sunset Boulevard’

February 17th, 2017 Comments off

by Samuel L. Leiter

Glenn Close in 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Talk about star power! No, I’m not referring to Glenn Close, the estimable star of Sunset Boulevard, now in glittery revival at the Palace Theatre. I mean Hillary Clinton, who, the night I attended, brought the house to a roaring, cameras-out, standing ovation as she took her seat just before the show began. Close, despite a fine, if overripe, performance, had to compete with her audience’s divided attention all night.

Partly, this is because the musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard, based on the classic 1950 Billy Wilder film, is, while generally entertaining, simply not that great. It was first produced with Patti LuPone as Norma Desmond in London in 1993, with Glenn Close (who won the Tony) starring in the 1994 Broadway version (which, despite a nearly two and a half year run, lost a fortune). The current version arrives after premiering at London’s English National Opera, its leads intact.

With book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton (much of the ordinary dialogue is sung as even more ordinary recitative) and score by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber, the show closely follows the movie’s plot and includes many of its familiar lines. Apart from two aria-like songs displaying Webber at his most lushly melodic and theatrically emotional—“As If We Never Said Goodbye” and “With One Look”—the well-performed score is not particularly memorable. Fortunately, a huge, 40-piece orchestra led by Kirsten Blodgette (one of Broadway’s largest ever we’re told) makes even the more mediocre numbers sound their best.

Michael Xavier and the cast of 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Michael Xavier and the cast of ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Sunset Boulevard, as any film buff knows, tells of onetime, silent screen goddess Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson on screen), 50, her fame a memory, living in the decaying splendor of a Sunset Boulevard mansion with her faithful, bullet-headed, immaculately groomed butler and first husband, Max Mayerling (Fred Johanson; Erich von Stroheim on screen), the former director who made Norma famous.

There the deluded, reclusive, garishly dressed and heavily made-up former star—her fantasies maintained by the ever-looming Max—dreams of her comeback in a spectacular film she’s written about Salomé in which she hopes to star at Paramount under the direction of Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler; DeMille himself on screen). When a handsome, flat-broke screenwriter, Joe Gillis (Michael Xavier; William Holden on screen), shows up, desperate for work, she asks for his help on what he recognizes as her awful screenplay. Joe’s status as Norma’s kept man coupled with a budding romance with script reader Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon) leads to tragic results.

Glenn Close in 'Sunset Boulevard.' (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

Glenn Close in ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus via The Broadway Blog.)

At the end, the now insane, wild-eyed Norma—garbed outlandishly as a 1920s movie version of Salomé—mistakes the cops and reporters for studio employees as she descends a staircase to deliver her devastating tagline, “And now, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

Director Lonny Price’s revival has eliminated much of the fabled grandiosity of the overproduced first production, opting for a more simplified approach within James Noone’s elaborate framework of metal staircases and catwalks, dominated by a remarkable chandelier suggesting a series of drooping teardrops, one above the other.

Supplemented by the brilliant lighting of Mark Henderson, the excellent period costumes of Tracy Christensen (with Anthony Powell doing Close’s strikingly over-the-top ensembles), b/w videos (uncredited) of 1940s Hollywood, and lively choreography by Stephen Mear, this Sunset Boulevard remains visually sumptuous. And let’s not forget the dead-body-in-the-pool effect that opens and closes the show.

For all its exaggerations and Swanson’s larger-than-life performance, Wilder’s film was a darkly cynical, noirish satire on the fickleness of fame and the ruthlessness behind Hollywood’s glamorous exterior. Except for rare moments, Price’s staging, in a fatal mistake, fails to capture the darkness, being surprisingly upbeat, paced at machine-gun speed, and with only scattered moments of the needed gothic anxiety demanded by the story.

Xavier’s Joe, tall and hunky (body worshipers will appreciate his swimsuit scene), comes off more like a James Stewart-like boy-next-door than a down-on-his-luck skeptic. Johansen’s Max, physically imposing with a gifted baritone voice, is too overbearing and lacks the necessary subtle menace. Dillon plays Betty, the formulaic ingénue, according to formula.

Close, nearly 70 but playing 50, inspires thoughts regarding similarities between herself and Norma. Her pitchy singing voice is not Broadway’s best, but her acting is strong enough, even within the deliberately broad, almost grotesque, theatricality she adopts (even Swanson’s own campiness doesn’t compare) to jerk tears when she launches into “With One Look.” But the emphasis on her exaggerations takes the show too far from its deeper implications.

This revival of Sunset Boulevard is smart to have pared down its visual excesses. The darkness it evokes, though, is more in its lighting than in the world it creates. Which is not so smart.

Sunset Boulevard
Palace Theatre
1564 Broadway, NYC
Through June 25

Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florence Henderson Tribute Scheduled for 2/21

February 17th, 2017 Comments off
Florence Henderson (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock, Inc.)

Florence Henderson (Photo: Helga Esteb / Shutterstock, Inc.)

Friends and family of Florence Henderson will come together on Tuesday, February 21, at 1:30 p.m. at the Music Box Theatre (239 West 45th Street) to celebrate the treasured star. Alan Cumming, Michael Feinstein, Judy Gold, Whoopi Goldberg, Isabel Leonard, Chita Rivera, James Snyder, Bruce Vilanch and Barry Williams will share their memories and talent to honor Florence. Presented by Rich Aronstein, Kayla Pressman and Glen Roven, this memorial event is open to the public on a first-come-first-serve basis with doors opening to the public at 1:20 p.m.

Florence Henderson was one of the most beloved American entertainers of the last six decades.  Florence arrived in New York at the age of 17 to attend the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Within a year of attending the Academy, Broadway beckoned with roles in Oklahoma, Fanny, The Sound of Music, South Pacific, and The King and I, among others.

The emerging medium of television piqued her interest and Florence accepted the job as the “Today Show” Girl alongside pioneering broadcaster Dave Garroway. Florence was also a mainstay on live performance shows like “Ed Sullivan,” the “Bell Television Hour” and others. That was all a warm up for mega-popular “The Brady Bunch,” the television series that has remarkably not left the airwaves in syndication since it ceased production in 1974 after 117 episodes. It still airs in over 122 countries. Carol Brady became one of the most popular mothers in television history.

In the aftermath of “The Brady Bunch,” Florence Henderson continued to star in major theatrical productions, headline in Las Vegas and perform live at major venues around the country, including in her autobiographical one-woman show All the Lives of Me.

In 2011, Florence released her memoir Life Is Not a Stage: From Broadway Baby to Lovely Lady and Beyond (Center Street/Hachette Book Group). The autobiography spent time on the New York Times Bestsellers List. In 2003, she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.  Florence’s enthusiasm, professionalism, commitment to quality and artistry has made her one of the most respected and endearing performers of our time.Florence is survived by her four children, five grandchildren, one brother and two sisters.