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Review: Sunset Boulevard at the Hippodrome
Culture Editor Olivia Boyce reviews a spectacular new touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, the iconic story of love, obsession and the price of fame.
Of all of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s shows, few are quite as spectacular as his Tony Award-winning musical Sunset Boulevard, based on Wilder’s iconic film of the same name. Having recently had well-received runs in London and New York, it now returns for a UK tour, bringing the glitz and glamour of 1950 Hollywood to stages around the country, and this week it draws audiences at the Birmingham Hippodrome into a production that is, simply put, a truly unforgettable piece of theatre.
It may be ‘the oldest story in the book’, as leading man Danny Mac sings in the title song, but the plot of Sunset Boulevard sparkles even now. Joe Gillis, a down on his luck film writer, is down to his last dime when he stumbles upon the driveway of a palazzo on Sunset Boulevard. Unknown to him, it is home to a seemingly fading film star, Norma Desmond, who employs him to work on her script, planning a return to the big screen. They soon become embroiled in a tale of seduction and obsession, as Joe is seduced by her lifestyle and Norma herself, and she also falling for him, until events occur that lead to an unforgettable and dramatic ending. “
“'...a truly unforgettable piece of theatre'
The staging is complex, slick, and at almost all times, breathtaking. From the ensemble scenes in the bar to the studio lot as it fills and moves before our eyes, every single bit of the set is utilised perfectly. There’s an extraordinary level of detail in this deceptively complex set, with each scene change choreographed to perfection in an astonishing theatrical feat. Of particular merit is the realisation of Norma’s house, staircase and living room materialising in an instant, and the use of projection is genius, with several surfaces doubling as screens for a variety of projected images that capture a cinematic tone perfectly. It might be a bold move to have such almost constant motion on stage, but it is an inspired one that pays particular dividends in contrast to the quieter, more intimate moments throughout.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sumptuous score and Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s lyrics come alive in this production, with the orchestra playing the iconic melodies beautifully. From ‘On the Road’ to ‘Let’s Have Lunch’, and each of Norma’s songs, they provide a cinematic, magical atmosphere that really brings together the show.
The assembled cast are exceptional. Every ensemble member is pitch perfect, bringing to life the noise of a film set or a crowded bar, and performing the demanding score perfectly. Dougie Carter is suitably spot on with his comic timing as Artie Green, and Carl Sanderson is also well cast as legendary director, Cecil B. DeMille. Adam Pearce is a fabulous Max, Norma’s butler and an important figure from her past. His voice is astounding, with a range that almost defies belief, and his ‘ The Greatest Star of All’ is incredibly moving. Molly Lynch is joyful and sweet as Betty, Joe’s writing partner, a mix of determined hopefulness and honesty that is endearing.
“'Ria Jones' Norma is a career-defining, unforgettable creation, and cements her place as one of ‘the greatest stars of all.’
Danny Mac is a fabulous leading man as Joe Gillis. From the second he introduces us to the action at the start of the show, he is at home on stage, capturing Joe’s charm, indecision and bitterness perfectly. He sings suavely through his numbers but truly shines in his Act 2 opener ‘Sunset Boulevard’, with a note at the end that is as impressive as it is delightful to hear. Though Mac has a long history in theatre, his performance here will surely ensure many more roles to come.
The night truly belongs to Miss Desmond herself, played in glorious fashion by Ria Jones. Jones’ performance is pure brilliance, capturing the spiraling Norma in electrifying fashion, always teetering between tragic distress and steely determination in a heartbreakingly human performance. Her vocal prowess is on full show, with numbers like ‘With One Look’ and ‘The Perfect Year’ gaining new life as she sings. Her performance of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ is theatre at its pinnacle, worth the price of the ticket alone as the audience are swept up in a moment so powerful that the entire auditorium stills, watching in awe as her vocals soar. Jones’ Norma is a career-defining, unforgettable creation, and cements her place as one of ‘the greatest stars of all.’
Sunset Boulevard is a triumphant, truly breathtaking piece of theatre, and one that should not be missed.