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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Sunset Boulevard
Comedy Theatre     2008 - 2009

Like too many of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Sunset Boulevard was grossly overproduced the first time around, with a gigantic moving set that dwarfed the actors and constantly drew your attention away from the human story.

More excusably, it was structured as a star vehicle for a diva (Patti LuPone in London, Glenn Close in New York), so that nobody else was able to register. (Quick - who played Joe to LuPone's Norma? I had to look it up - Kevin Anderson - and I still can't remember him.)

So a small-scale, more human-size revival of the musical is welcome, giving us not just the opportunity to hear a couple of familiar songs again, but to discover that there is more to the show than those two songs, and that the book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton create a solid and moving musical drama.

This new production comes from Berkshire's Watermill Theatre, which has developed a house style of having cast members double as the orchestra, carrying their instruments around and accompanying themselves and each other.

Guest director-choreographer Craig Revel Horwood maintains that tradition here, though Sunset Boulevard's concentration on three or four characters means that the effect is more of an onstage orchestra occasionally doubling in minor roles.

The result is a sense of casualness (though the players are carefully and effectively choreographed) and intimacy that helps to bring everything down to life-size.

The story, of course, comes from the 1950 Billy Wilder movie about the young screenwriter who becomes involved with a silent film star madly imagining a comeback, and casting a skilled character actress, Kathryn Evans, rather than a guest-star diva as Norma Desmond is a major plus.

Not only is Evans a few years closer to the correct age than her predecessors in the role, but - with the aid of Horwood's direction and the modest production - she is able to create a real and moving character rather than just a string of big moments.

Her Norma is far more pathetic than grotesque, more self-deluding than barking mad. We don't stare at her from afar, as a glorious monster, but recognise and feel for her as a woman in pain.

And as a result, the other characters come into better balance. I will remember Ben Goddard's Joe Gillis here - a weak man succumbing to the temptations of an easy life but retaining enough self-awareness to be tormented by his corruption - far longer than I did Kevin Anderson's.

Laura Pitt-Pulford makes his love interest Betty, a role I was hardly aware of in the original, a touching portrayal of a simple girl way out of her depth (and she plays a mean flute).

And yes, Norma's 'With One Look' and 'As If We Never Said Goodbye' are the best songs in the show, though Kathryn Evans is allowed to act them and not just perform them as isolated arias, thus reinventing and strengthening them.

'Never Said Goodbye' in particular is revealed as a complex self-exposing soliloquy of unexpected depth - it made me think of 'Rose's Turn' in Gypsy - and Evans rightly stops the show with it.

But it turns out that there are other songs to the show as well. 'Every Movie's a Circus,' added to the score in the USA, is a sprightly chorus number, while the second well-deserved show-stopper is 'Too Much In Love,' the big duet for Joe and Betty.

'The Perfect Year' has a lovely melody, and if the title number is never quite as good as it wants to be, Ben Goddard certainly sings the hell out of it.

Craig Revel Horwood has choreographed a chastely romantic tango for Joe and Norma, but the fluid movement of the musicians around the stage, weaving in and out of scenes without intruding, and creating a sense of the world these characters inhabit, is a greater staging accomplishment.

There is a place in musical theatre for Phantom's falling chandelier and grand staircase, and I wouldn't want to do without them. But it is nice to be reminded that ambitious musicals like Sunset Boulevard can also be done on a human scale, often - as now - to their benefit.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Sunset Boulevard - Comedy Theatre 2008