Sunset Boulevard review – Sarah Brightman disappoints in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s mawkish musical

<span>Sarah Brightman in Sunset Boulevard at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne.</span><span>Photograph: Daniel Boud</span>
Sarah Brightman in Sunset Boulevard at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne.Photograph: Daniel Boud

The monstrous, pitiful Norma Desmond, the washed-up silent film star at the heart of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, is a massive and complex role; it requires an actor of great charisma and gravitas to pull it off. Patti LuPone first played Norma on the West End, and Glenn Close had extraordinary success in the part on Broadway. But Sarah Brightman – who leapt to fame originating the role of ingenue Christine Daaé in Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera is simply not up to the task in Opera Australia’s new production, her first major theatre role in three decades. Not physically, not dramatically and certainly not vocally.

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Sunset Boulevard, a musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film, was always an odd fit for Lloyd Webber, a composer known for scale and sentiment rather than cynicism or satirical bite. Wilder’s vision always seemed better suited to Stephen Sondheim, who flirted with his own adaptation of the material before abandoning it. Lloyd Webber’s score is sumptuous and cinematic, with a jazz-inflected swagger that evokes the period, but it lacks the jangled nerves and bitter dissonance of the original. It also trades Wilder’s exquisitely calibrated pathos for unabashed mawkishness.

The plot is simple. Down on his luck, screenwriter Joe Gillis (Tim Draxl) is desperate for a break at Paramount studios. An accidental meeting with faded star Norma leads to him moving into her crumbling mansion on Sunset Boulevard, overseen by a mysterious servant, Max (Robert Grubb). Joe is there ostensibly to help her turn an overblown treatment of the Salome story into a workable screenplay but he soon becomes something of a kept man. His working relationship with a young writer, Betty Schaefer (Ashleigh Rubenach), develops into something more, but the increasingly desperate Norma’s delusion and insatiable ego threaten to swallow the couple’s fledgling happiness. It all ends in tragedy and melodrama, with shots fired, a body floating in a pool, tears and spotlights before bedtime.

But Sunset isn’t really about plot so much as it’s about mood, theme and character. Wilder’s view on the film industry was acerbic and scathing but also lovingly drawn and self-reverential. Gillis is a man corrupted by the grandeur of failure as much as the promise of success, and Norma’s monstrosity – her cloying need for validation, her aggressive vulnerability – is also what brings her dignity. She is a star, and she does deserve better. Even the great Cecil B DeMille himself (Paul Hanlon) acknowledges as much, in one of the production’s more poignant scenes.

If only Brightman could play any of it. She delivers those famous early lines – “I am big! It’s the pictures that got small” and “We didn’t need dialogue, we had faces” – as if reading the lesser contents of her will. In her opening number, With One Look, she seems to suck in lungfuls of air like a guppy, only to release a breathy, stretched and haltingly phrased series of notes that barely travel over the orchestra pit. Her voice improves in the second act but her performance never shifts beyond the wooden and superficial.

Draxl tries extremely hard to make up for Brightman’s lack. His Gillis is alternately determined and dismayed, that acrid disillusionment seething from the start but also slowly curdling into self-hatred. His scenes with Rubenach’s steely Betty are the best thing in the show, driving and authentic – although Lloyd Webber’s melodic gifts desert him for the blandly forgettable love duet, Too Much in Love to Care (if only he’d cared to write a better song). Grubb is hampered by the total lack of chemistry with Brightman, the servant’s unwavering loyalty coming across as silly and misplaced where it needs to be towering and noble.

The production itself is slick and stylish, with a terrific ensemble of performers and some stirring playing from Melbourne Orchestra under the musical direction of Paul Christ. The lushness of the orchestrations, those swooning strings and clarion brass, bring emotional heft. Morgan Large’s sets and costumes are richly detailed – that grimly decorative house reminded me of Catherine de Medici’s gloomy bedroom in the Chateau de Chenonceau – and Mark Henderson’s lighting and George Reeve’s projection design are opulent and sophisticated.

Even with the world’s greatest musical theatre talent centre stage, Sunset Boulevard is a rickety prospect. Wilder’s original is a work of unmitigated genius, a film not just about film and its corrupting eye but about the instability of the self, about the merciless nature of looking and then looking away. Lloyd Webber and his lyricists Don Black and Christopher Hampton reduce Norma to a pale imitation of the Phantom, a grotesque lover in the shadows. Perhaps there is something inspired about the casting of Brightman in this role: a symbol of Lloyd Webber’s luxurious romanticism at the height of his powers and the beginning of her career, and a symbol of faded glory at the end.

  • Sunset Boulevard is at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until 11 August, then Sydney Opera House from 28 August