A Candescent Glenn Close Returns to ‘Sunset Boulevard'

There aren't many circumstances in which I'd use the phrase “bare bones” to characterize a musical that boasts, among other big gestures, a 40-piece orchestra—incidentally, it’s said to be the largest to play on Broadway in 80 years.

Yet “stripped down” and “spare” are the words that come to mind when considering “Sunset Boulevard,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that this month returns powerhouse star Glenn Close to Broadway as silent-screen recluse Norma Desmond, a role that earned her a Tony 22 years ago.

This revival, directed by Lonny Price and now open at the Palace Theatre, was staged last year in London by the English National Opera.

The entire West End cast has made the journey to New York, and be assured: aside from the enormous orchestra—and perhaps a bulbous chandelier that makes the one from “Phantom” seem like a toddler’s night light—there’s little here to distract from Close’s mesmerizing Norma, or Lloyd Webber’s pop friendly score (“As If We Never Said Goodbye,” “The Perfect Year”).

Norma Desmond may have withered away after 20 years out of the spotlight, but Close has thrived in the same time, winning accolades for her work on TV (“Damages”), film (“Albert Nobbs”) and stage (“A Delicate Balance”). That much more life, lived, has made her Norma only more complex.

It’s evident in the first moments Close sings “With One Look,” as some lioness-in-winter recalling the powers she once had to captivate an audience, before movies had spoken dialogue: “No words can tell … the stories my eyes tell.”

Close’s Desmond, alive in her own alternate reality, is both candescent and incisive. Frayed but regal, needy and obsessive, she is an extraordinarily pancaked woman around whom everyone walks on eggshells. Tracy Christensen’s gilded costumes only further accentuate the utterly cray cray vibe. For Close, this can only be deemed a triumphant return.

Michael Xavier stands out as writer Joe Gillis, with whom Norma is instantly infatuated. House-bound for decades, Norma has only met Joe because he haphazardly pulled into her driveway, trying to outrun a couple of thugs intent on collecting a debt.

Xavier’s scribe is conflicted—he wants to be more cynical and hard-boiled than he really is. It’s apparent when Joe emerges from Norma’s pool wearing an absurdly tight pair of trunks she’s insisted on buying him. He seems to be saying: “I know this is silly ... but am I lucky to be here, or what?”

Fred Johanson, as butler Max von Mayerling—in fact, Norma’s former director and first husband—is a portrait of pained nobility, tightly wound and determined until the very end to protect the shattered ego of his charge.

Siobhan Dillon is supple-voiced as Betty Schaeffer, the studio assistant with a sweet spot for Joe (and little tolerance for bad prose). Betty is romantic but sensible and, also, the only grounding element in a story that’s about a lot of people fooling themselves. (“Sunset Boulevard” is based on Billy Wilder’s film; with its New York stage opening, Webber has four musicals simultaneously running on Broadway.)

“Sunset Boulevard” is narrated by Joe, who is understood to be relating the events that led to his death. Price (“Lady Day,” etc.) keeps the camp factor set to “stun” with a life-size mannequin of Joe’s corpse hovering above the stage for the entire 2 hour, 40-minute tuner. His body is over our heads, the musical is over the top, and we remain head over heels for Close’s so-very-delicate Norma Desmond.

“Sunset Boulevard,” now extended into June at the Palace Theatre, 1564 7th Ave. Tickets: $65-$299. Call 877-255-2929.

Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn

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