Glenn Close was demented, Betty Buckley vulnerable. So what’s to do but go for the laughs? Elaine Paige, Broadway’s latest Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” brings a British music-hall comic flair and a very big voice to the role that has become the theater’s equivalent of wet cement, just waiting for the next handprint.
Paige, London’s premier musical-comedy actress, has a sizable cult following in the United States despite having never appeared on Broadway. With her bell-clear voice and a stage presence that dwarfs her tiny four-foot-something height, the West End’s original Evita and Grizabella doesn’t disappoint her enthusiasts one row of fanatics at the reviewed performance was in tears from the first staircase descent to the last but neither does she lift “Sunset Boulevard” beyond its own second-rate level as both Close and, especially, Buckley did.
Finding laughs in places her predecessors didn’t (or couldn’t), Paige gives the musical’s first act an altogether lighter tone than New York audiences have seen. That’s not to say that she misses the heartbreak quotient entirely, but she certainly doesn’t project the emotionally fractured soul of Buckley’s Norma. Nor does Paige come off as the bizarre loon that Close mimed. Instead we have a Norma whose outsize gestures seem less the byproduct of neurosis than leftover affectations of the silent screen. Where she learned her way with spoken punch lines is anybody’s guess.
Paige’s approach, however crowd-pleasing, doesn’t always jibe with Alan Campbell’s angry, sullen Joe Gillis. More potentially damaging, though, is that the actress is forced to drop the approach during the sadder, darker second half , and founders a bit as a result. At least early in her run, Paige doesn’t seem to have found a way to leave her imprimatur on Norma’s crackup she veers a bit too closely to the film’s Gloria Swanson and, yes, even Carol Burnett’s fondly remembered parody.
Fortunately, Paige’s powerhouse voice keeps the show-stoppers “With One Look, ” “As If We Never Said Goodbye” stopping the show. The front-and-center staging of the numbers also frees the diminutive performer from competing with banisters and co-stars for audience sightlines.
And although rumor has the banister being lowered to accommodate the new Norma, the same rethinking doesn’t seem to have been taken with her costuming. Gowns that, however outlandish, elegantly draped the comparatively statuesque Close and Buckley seem a bit doll-like on Paige. A hem here and there doesn’t cut it: She all but drowns in that full-skirted leopard number.
Elsewhere, the production, if not always the musical itself, is holding up well nearly two years into its run. Campbell remains in strong voice, Alice Ripley has stayed pert in the ingenue role, and newcomer Darrin Baker is fine as Gillis’ best friend. Only George Hearn, as Norma’s ever-loyal butler, Max, seems to be showing some wear, his high notes requiring a bit more strain than before. Two years supporting one Norma or another must exact some price.