As I watched Glenn Close make her entrance on the stage at The Palace in Sunset Boulevard, I couldn't help but wonder how it feels to return "home" to a role she did 22 years ago. To return home to Broadway and all her fans in the dark. No, she didn't go the route of the aging actress Norma Desmond that she portrays, but there are definitely moments that she must be living some sort of similarities.
I've heard this production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical compared to the concerts at City Center, but I compare it more to the concerts usually done at Lincoln Center where the huge orchestra is right on stage and the performers do the show in front of them. First done in London and directed by Lonny Price, producers decided to bring that production back to New York and we are lucky they did.
I love this production! The moment the orchestra starts you realize how incredible it is to hear the lush sound from a 41 piece orchestra and Lloyd Webber's music has never sounded so amazing. I saw the original on Broadway with the mammoth set of a mansion that moved up and down and rivaled the falling chandelier in another Lloyd Webber show, but in Price's production stairs and platforms take the place and I never missed it. Instead we can pay attention to the wonderful performances that are occurring each night on that stage for this limited run (which has been extended through June). We can hear the words written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton based on the Billy Wilder film and follow the full story instead of making the mansion another character that looms over the entire production.
Glenn Close has changed the way she plays the silent film actress who was forced to give up her profession once talkies came into play. At 50, she is considered over the hill and washed up. When Ms. Close first played it, she was in her late 40s and stayed true to the iconic performance of Gloria Swanson from the film version. But now, being in her late 60s brings a vulnerability and fragility to the role that is more moving and heartbreaking. She displays the importance of having an actress in a musical - and before people slam her aging voice....so what! That's what happens to the voice, it starts to go. And it works perfectly for this character when a note doesn't always come out exactly as planned. I loved her performance and tears came to my eyes when she sang "As If We Never Said Goodbye" in Act II.
Some of the British cast was brought over with Ms. Close and while NY critics weren't the kindest to them, I don't get the animosity. Michael Xavier is a perfect Joe Gillis - the out of work writer who happens upon the home of Ms. Desmond and ends up working for her. He has layered this character in a way I don't recall seeing 20 years ago. The cockiness is there, but I also believe he cares for Norma. And his singing voice is flawless. He hits those notes effortlessly and it's beautiful. Siobhan Dillon is a great Betty Schaeffer with a bit of a confidence that is refreshing. Fred Johanson adds a creepiness to Max (the man servant who harbors love for Norma and sees to all her needs) that adds to the weirdness of her home. He also has an amazing baritone that soars through the Palace. The rest of the cast are all quite nice in each role they play around the main story.
I must give a shout out to Mick Potter who did the sound design as I heard every word which isn't always easy especially with that huge orchestra on stage. I also love Lonny Price's choices in staging/storytelling which shows how a fresh director's eye can change a piece that has been done before. From the floating body to the young Norma's "ghost" lingering around the mansion - I loved it all! (Of course, I have to say that as I added a young Anna and Angel when I directed a production of The Rink so I like playing with past/present.)