The role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard” is a rarity in theater, a showcase for a middle-age woman. So it was with considerably more hype than normal that Toronto awaited the opening of the world’s fourth production of the Lloyd Webber musical, starring 60-year-old Diahann Carroll.
She follows on the heels of Glenn Close, whose Tony award-winning performance as the aging silent movie queen has become a benchmark for measuring other Normas, at least from the acting point of view. Close attended the Toronto opening, not only to see Carroll, but to support her beau Steve Beers, consulting carpenter on “Sunset.”
A celebrity-studded audience, which included Patti LaBelle, Elaine Stritch, Graham Greene and Norman Jewison, cheered Carroll’s every note in this C$ 12 million ($ 9 million) Livent presentation. But Carroll doesn’t yet have a handle on the part, and has made some acting choices that detract from, rather than enrich, the character.
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Not that Close’s deeply mordant interpretation, which relied more on acting than on singing, is the only way to go. Indeed Carroll’s magnificent voice is one of the main draws in the Toronto production, which opened with a $ 7.4 million advance, according to Livent. And while she doesn’t swoop and soar with the same finesse as Patti LuPone (the world’s first musical Norma), Carroll does articulate clearly, and she imbues her words with meaning, something LuPone failed to do in the London production. Carroll’s Act 2 rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” is particularly rich and moving. But it was also the first time she seemed to catch fire.
The main problem is her overblown interpretation of Norma, no doubt meant to mirror the acting style of the silent screen star whose time has come and gone. But instead of revealing Norma’s desperate loneliness, the melodramatic gestures and hysterics block any real emotions. When she falls in love with Joe (Rex Smith), the young hack writer who exploits her and pays with his life, the situation seems ridiculous rather than pathetic.
Playing Joe with dark cynicism, Broadway crooner and soap star Smith saves the night, along with Anita Louise Combe, imported from the West End, where she’s been playing the role of ingenue Betty Schaefer for two years. Combe is sincere, engaging and sings like an angel. Smith stops the show with his passionate, full-throated rendition of the show’s title song. Also turning in a strong performance is Walter Charles, as Norma’s ex-husband and butler, Max.
Director Trevor Nunn, or perhaps more accurately, production supervisor Peter Lawrence, keeps a tight pace, and Bob Avian’s musical staging remains as sparkly as John Napier’s amazing mansion and Anthony Powell’s glittering, beaded costumes.
But the real problem with “Sunset” remains Lloyd Webber’s saccharine music, still in large part unsuitable for the harsh subtext of Billy Wilder’s 1950 film , despite the combined artistry of Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book and lyrics. In the end, it’s up to the actress playing Norma to rise above both the limitations and the visual pageantry to imprint the clone musical with a unique signature. Carroll certainly does that.