Sunset Boulevard in its musical theatre form first saw the light of day at the Sydmonton Festival in 1991. Andrew Lloyd Webber had long used the private festival in the grounds of his home, to test the viability of new shows, before a private audience of theatre and media bigwigs. This might seem irrelevant information twenty-six years on, but in this incarnation of Sunset Boulevard it’s highly relevant – the actress who played the role of silent movie star Norma Desmond, was the relatively obscure Ria Jones. Over two decades on, this is Jones’ return to the role (apart from a brief stint stepping in for Glenn Close as her understudy) echoing with more than a little co-incidence her character’s own return to the experiences of the past. For Norma Desmond this “return” is somewhat of a delusional mirage, but not so for Jones who excels as Norma.
Lloyd Webber’s triumphant score is a dark, majestic and operatic affair. If you’re not familiar with the compositions, don’t expect the cheery singalong pop type numbers of his early creations. The story warrants something much more melancholic, eerie and cynical and the complex arrangements and challenging vocals make for an impressive experience. This isn’t an easy sing for the cast either, at times it’s purposely discordant and demands a large range from the cast. Adam Pearce as Max shows particular vocal prowess in his ability to span the octaves with his velvet sound – and his portrayal of the role is as perfectly tuned as his voice. Molly Lynch’s pretty and flawless soprano is utterly delightful as she perfectly personifies the role of love interest Betty Schaefer.
Perhaps the surprise of the show is Danny Mac. There’s always a worry that casting a soap and reality TV star may just be a commercial move, overlooking the plethora of fantastic actors and singers from the realms of the unknown. However, Mac has musical theatre credentials – solid training and West End credits, that along with tall, dark and handsome good looks and celebrity status, make him an ideal choice for Joe Gillis. Believable and engaging throughout, he needs to be good – the character is barely off stage and has to engage us as he breaks the fourth wall and carries much of the narrative. These are big shoes to fill, walking the Joe Gillis footsteps of musical theatre legends including John Barrowman and Michael Ball. But Mac doesn’t disappoint, pulling in a strong, able and charismatic performance.
This is high level, quality and grand scale musical theatre – the sets and costumes are stunning, the cast are fantastic and the orchestra is hauntingly enchanting. Sunset Boulevard isn’t in all honesty everyone’s cup of tea, but neither is it supposed to be. It is an opulently theatrical, discomforting story, that continues to enthral audiences worldwide.
Photos courtesy of Manuel Harlan.
Sunset Boulevard runs until 7th October at Edinburgh Playhouse.