After the Sicilian Norma Desmond of Patti LuPone, and the kabuki Norma Desmond of Glenn Close, now comes what can only — and definitively — be called the Broadway Norma Desmond of Betty Buckley.
The Street’s supreme diva is driving audiences into a frenzy, and why not? She is a musical-theater alchemist whose penetrating vibrato can turn doggerel into anthem — listen to “With One Look”– and whose soaring lyric soprano is forceful enough to levitate rooftops even without the unwelcome assist of amplification. No one seems more born to the role of the silent-screen goddess that time has passed by.
Buckley is magnificent as Norma, despite a number of obstacles. The first, of course, is the show itself, which is no less a kitsch extravaganza for her presence in it. The second is that while Close could only approximate the vocal flexibility required for the role, in terms of acting, her wildly over-the-top portrait of Norma was its own standard.
Buckley puts a younger, more human face on Norma, which is certainly more realistic. But realism is beside the point here; indeed, it only underscores what a bad show “Sunset Boulevard” is. If you’re talking about acting — which is, admittedly, a silly thing to do, given the context — Close wins, hands down.
Also, Buckley should demand a costume refitting. Two in particular — the red number for “The Lady’s Paying,” and the black-and-white one for the act two opening — are extremely unflattering. The head mikes that look like spit curls (or insects) aren’t very attractive, either.
Nevertheless, “Sunset Boulevard” has its rewards, including one song sure to outlive the show and its critics, and that is “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” in a scene drawn as if traced from the enduring 1950 Billy Wilder film. Nobody sings this song better than Buckley, and the audience lets her know it. It’s a great moment from a great star.