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Sunset Boulevard - Princess Theatre (VIC)

Presented by Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment, in arrangement with The Really Useful Group


The Lloyd Webber classic returns with a lead that doesn't live up to the hype, but with stellar performances giving the world of 'Sunset Boulevard' the grandeur required


Reviewed by Annika Loci

Princess Theatre, Melbourne

Until 11th August, 2024

Sydney Opera House from 28th August, 2024


Australian theatre seems to be in an Andrew Lloyd Webber chapter in its season, with the revival of Phantom of the Opera, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the recent announcement of Jesus Christ Superstar.  After almost 30 years, Opera Australia, GWB Entertainment in arrangement with The Really Useful Group has brought a partly reimagined version of Lloyd Webber’s classic musical Sunset Boulevard to our stages once more.


Although written over seventy years ago, the Sunset Boulevard themes touch upon cancel culture, financial strain, an obsession with fame and Hollywood, and a desire to stay relevant. In short, they are still as prevalent as ever. But at what cost does our physical and/or mental health comes with this?


Sunset Boulevard, Princess Theatre (2024). Images by Daniel Boud


Based on the original film from 1950 by Billy Wilder, the musical is set in Hollywood in 1949.  Down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (Tim Draxl) is attempting to find work at Paramount Studios, where he meets pretty script editor Betty Schaefer (Ashleigh Rubenach) and initially begins a working relationship. However Joe must make a quick escape and in his attempt to hide from debt collectors he ends up in the driveway of a gloomy estate on Sunset Boulevard. Initially encountering Max Von Mayerling (Robert Grubb) who identifies himself as the butler, he meets the slightly eccentric, friendless Norma Desmond (Sarah Brightman).


Though once known as one of the greatest stars in the silent film era, Desmond is now a recluse clinging on to her glory days. Becoming obsessed with making her “return” to the industry, for room and board, Joe agrees to assist her with her plans. Hesitant and feeling trapped at first, Joe succumbs to the comfortable lifestyle, although it becomes clear that the real world with his relationships, and his growing feelings for Betty creates conflict for all as both collide and secrets are revealed. The outcome is catastrophic.


Brightman’s absence from the theatrical world for over three decades is quite noticeable in her performance.

The big focus and attention around this production has been the casting for Norma Desmond.  A number of world class performers have left their mark and accolades on the role, including Patti LuPone, Glenn Close and Australian Debra Byrne. Known to be a very challenging role for even the most seasoned performer, between the demanding vocal arrangements and acting prowess needed, the role shows the inherent manipulator who is both fractured and ultimately deranged. Without these attributes the role can easily fall to empathy and compassion for just a lonely middle-aged woman craving attention thus leaving the story and themes somewhat lacking. 


Known for being one of the world’s most popular sopranos with a three octave vocal range, West End and award winning recording star Sarah Brightman certainly visually looks the part of Norma Desmond. Morgan Large’s variety of stunning and expressive costumes of lace, prints, headpieces, coats, and accessories become more vivid and dramatic as Norma’s personality becomes darker and unhinged.


There are the occasional shining vocal moments especially during “As If We Never Said Goodbye”; however Brightman’s absence from the theatrical world for over three decades is quite noticeable in her performance. Audible breath work and vibrato often overpowers her operatic range reducing the clarity in large sections of vocals. Brightman’s overall portrayal of Desmond too feels passive and often superficial with many static or disconnected moments rather than presenting the obsession and unwinding of the characters mindset.


Draxl has created a charming and relatable character as the failing screenwriter Joe Gillies, doing most of the heavy lifting which is somewhat appropriate given the story is presented through his narration of events. Draxl himself suits the film noir themes written by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and works continuously to find as many moments as possible to connect with Brightman. Draxl especially shines through his immaculate diction, bringing his wealth of acting experience during expository monologues and presenting the highly anticipated title song with the disturbed passion and internal conflict required.


The full sixteen plus piece Melbourne Orchestra led by Musical Director Paul Christ is glorious and emotive from the first note of the overture

Although not a large ensemble musical, the cast as a whole bring a wealth of experience, talent and much needed energy to the stage in scenes such as “Let’s Do Lunch”, “This Time Next Year” and comedic relief in “The Lady’s Paying”.


Rubenach creates a more charming on stage chemistry and shows highly complementary vocal performances with Draxl in an endearing interpretation of the young and beautiful screen editor Betty. Grubb is highly convincing as Norma’s devoted and protective butler who’s a victim of years of manipulation with impressively soaring notes in “The Greatest Star of All”. Other noteworthy performances include Jarrod Draper as Artie Green, Troy Sussman as Sheldrake and Paul Hanlon as Cecil B Demille.


The full sixteen plus piece Melbourne Orchestra led by Musical Director Paul Christ is glorious and emotive from the first note of the overture. Large’s set design is cinematic and beautifully detailed; a character in itself. The large 1920s monochromatic gothic set of Norma’s growingly neglected living room reminds audiences of Norma’s psyche, which is so woven into her identity as a black and white actress that it penetrates every aspect of her lifestyle and expression.


This is juxtaposed against colourful late 1940s costuming and sets paired with slick movement and choreography by Ashley Wallen. Seamless transitions between scenes are achieved through use of black lace curtains and expert interaction between sound (David Greasley) and projection (George Reeve) as well as a powerful moody lighting design from Mark Henderson.


Although it may struggle with the continuity of the themes of Sunset Boulevard, audiences can still expect to experience and enjoy an overall solid production of grandeur only Opera Australia can achieve.


 

Currently playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne until August 11th, then heading to Sydney on August 28th, 2024. Note:  Silvie Paladino fills the role of Norma Desmond on Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances.



 

 

 

 

 

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