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Sunset Boulevard

"Sunset Boulevard" has finally opened in New York, and the town belongs, at least for a while, to Glenn Close. Those expecting a new "Phantom of the Opera" from that show's composer are likely to be satisfied, but Close is as much the draw as Andrew Lloyd Webber, and she doesn't disappoint in the Gloria Swanson role.

“Sunset Boulevard” has finally opened in New York, and the town belongs, at least for a while, to Glenn Close. Those expecting a new “Phantom of the Opera” from that show’s composer are likely to be satisfied, but Close is as much the draw as Andrew Lloyd Webber, and she doesn’t disappoint in the Gloria Swanson role: Her Norma Desmond is a memorable display of the shattered hauteur of a fabled star whom time and technology have long since passed by.

Close has a fair, if colorless, contralto that goes tight or raspy outside a fairly restricted range. But she’s temperamentally suited to the role — more cracked than raging, more feral than frightened — and she muscles her way through the vocal tight spots with admirable persuasiveness. That’s a good thing, because her singing already is noticeably strained and she has difficulty with modulation and pitch.

While Trevor Nunn has tightened the show since Close opened in Los Angeles in December, it still seems frequently underdirected — leaving actors at key moments with nothing to do — while Bob Avian’s tight dances now seem even more essential to the flow.

And while John Napier’s outsize sets are as impressive as ever — the centerpiece being the rococo riot of gilt and marble that comprise the living room and central stairway of Norma’s mansion — the effect finally grows wearying.

And then there’s the musical itself. Lloyd Webber embellishes “Sunset” without improving it, steamrolling the Billy Wilder satire with a lowbrow sensibility that owes more to burlesque than to film noir.

Alan Campbell repeats from the L.A. cast as Joe Gillis, the luckless young screenwriter who stumbles into Norma’s life and stays on as her (well) kept man. Campbell is, unfortunately, no match for Close: He’s a sexless gigolo.

Like the movie, “Sunset” opens with a fish-eye view of Joe’s lifeless body being pulled from Norma’s pool, followed by the entrance of the anti-hero himself to narrate. Scene fluidly shifts to the Par lot (Par co-produced the show’s London and L.A. stands, but opted out of Broadway), where Cecil B. DeMille (“Murphy Brown” semiregular and DeMille ringer Alan Oppenheimer) is helming “Samson and Delilah,” the first of several excuses Lloyd Webber uses to trot out a bevy of beauties in spangles and pasties.

Unable to find work and on the run from goons who want to repossess his car, Joe briefly meets script reader Betty Schaefer (Alice Ripley, a vivacious replacement for Judy Kuhn), destined to become his love interest when it’s too late.

Joe finds refuge in the rambling mansion inhabited by the reclusive actress and her strange Teutonic servant, Max von Mayerling (a stentorian George Hearn, creepily wonderful in the Erich von Stroheim role).

When Joe recognizes Norma (“You used to be big,” etc.), she pounces, singing “With One Look.” The song begins as a paean to the power of silent films, but Norma quickly goes over the deep end, the overwrought star demonstrating right from the get-go that she’s nuts.

Joe stays on in pampered luxury to help Norma with the 9-pound screenplay –“Salome,” no less — she’s convinced will provide her “return” (don’t say comeback), and she soon grows not only mad, but mad about the boy. The boy, however, sneaks off at night to work with Betty on their own screenplay.

The first-act climax is set on New Year’s Eve in the show’s big theatrical coup: After tangoing with Norma, alone in that big living room but for a trio of musicians and Max, Joe leaves to join his struggling friends, and as he does, the whole enormous structure levitates and recedes — lots of applause — only to hover above the party scene in the considerably more austere digs of Betty’s fiance, Artie (the likable Vincent Tumeo), as Norma prowls the gloomy expanse above, blackness overcoming her. It’s a big moment that is, characteristically, more about stage machinery than people.

The show isn’t without its moments, though Lloyd Webber can be counted upon to undermine them with sentiment and to pitch his music loudly regardless of the dramatic requirements.

Norma’s poignant return to the studio, for example, sets up the haunting “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” wherein she still imagines an audience in her thrall. It should be a quiet moment — it is, after all, about the return of a deluded silent film star — but the composer pumps up the volume to a deafening roar that almost kills the scene for Close.

Nevertheless, she’s always campy fun, physicalizing Norma’s emotional state as much with her arms and hands — they fly skyward in her first embrace with Joe, curled fingers and blood-red nails stabbing the air, never to return — as with her face, a spooky, Kabuki mask.

The mad scenes seem to have been toned down somewhat, but they’re still too weird for words. And Anthony Powell has provided her with an eye-popping parade of ensembles, from gorgeous beaded sequined gowns to a daffy leopard skin number.

The Lloyd Webber-Don Black-Christopher Hampton score boasts several model musical-comedy songs, including “Eternal Youth is Worth a Little Suffering,” wherein a femme cadre kneads, slaps and pounds Norma’s 50-year-old body into shape in preparation for the return that is never to be.

But, of course, “Sunset Boulevard” isn’t a musical comedy, no matter how much cheesecake, chitchat and glitter Lloyd Webber kneads, slaps and pounds into it.

He’s converted a legendary piece of satire into a piece of sentimental kitsch that humiliates Norma Desmond but fails to redeem her with the purchase of an audience’s pity.

For now, “Sunset Boulevard” is Glenn Close’s show. Whether the audience will keep coming when it reverts to being Norma Desmond’s show is anybody’s guess.

Sunset Boulevard

Minskoff Theatre, N.Y.; 1,706 seats; $70 top

  • Production: A Really Useful Company presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, based on the Billy Wilder film. Director, Trevor Nunn; musical staging, Bob Avian; musical supervision and direction, David Caddick; orchestrations, David Cullen, Lloyd Webber.
  • Crew: Sets, John Napier; costumes, Anthony Powell; lighting, Andrew Bridge; sound, Martin Levan; musical director Paul Bogaev. Opened Nov. 17, 1994; reviewed Nov. 16. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.
  • Cast: Norma Desmond - Glenn Close<br> Joe Gillis - Alan Campbell<br> Max von Mayerling - George Hearn<br> Betty Schaefer - Alice Ripley<br> Cecil B. DeMille - Alan Oppenheimer<br> Artie Green - Vincent Tumeo<br>
  • Music By: