Glenn Close makes a triumphant return to the star role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” a once-in-a-lifetime role that won her a Tony Award in 1995. Ever an elegant actress, she’s positively regal in the English National Opera production which won her kudos on the West End last year and will play a limited 16-week run at the Palace Theater — a fitting setting for this star.
Some roles you really have to grow into, and Close claims diva status this time around. For one thing, she’s spectacular to look at, as put together by her personal design team of Anthony Powell (costumes), Andrew Simonin (wigs), and Charlotte Hayward (makeup). Those glittering gowns that Norma Desmond wears in the lonely grandeur of her Hollywood mansion may be decades old, but these vintage beauties sparkle and flash as if yesterday were only a day away.
And “yesterday” is precisely where the faded movie star seems to live, re-watching her old silent films and re-living her moments of glory as the great Paramount star she once was. The voluminous fan mail that keeps Norma occupied by day is a fiction kept alive by her faithful servant, Max von Mayerling, played by Fred Johanson with a depth of devotion that is genuinely moving — if deeply creepy.
Max also keeps alive Norma’s life-sustaining belief that Cecil B. DeMille (Paul Schoeffler, fully in character) will one day summon her back to the studio to star in another movie. To inspire the great director, Norma has been working on a monumental script for a silent film about Salome, which she envisions as the role of her lifetime.
Lloyd Webber’s luscious music (burdened by clunky lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton) is performed by a huge on-stage orchestra that lives by its strings. Romantically melodic, the songs eloquently articulate all the facets of Norma’s psyche, from the pride and glory of her past (“The Greatest Star of All”) to the gothic tragedy of her present. Close is divine in these early glimpses of Norma, obviously batty, but clinging to her dreams (and her sanity), and sustained by Max’s ministrations.
The diva’s cozy — if crazy — world spins out of orbit when Joe Gillis (a pallid Michael Xavier), a would-be screenwriter down on his luck), lands on her doorstep. He’s both dazzled and appalled by Norma, who flutters and preens for him and tutors him in the bygone beauty of her silent world in pictures. “I am big,” she informs her skeptical visitor. “It’s the pictures that got small.” And in “With One Look” illustrates the power of the silent film star. “I can say anything I want with my eyes,” she tells him, and in Close’s imperial performance, she does make us believe her.
Learning that Joe is a writer, Norma hires him to finish her script. But she soon turns him into her boy toy, a cushy role Joe can’t seem to resist (“The Lady’s Paying”). He does manage to escape from the mansion on New Year’s Eve (“I Had to Get Out”), to party with his peers and snuggle with Betty Schaeffer (Siobhan Dillon, another snoozer), a girl he met at Schwab’s Drugstore. The feeble choreography makes the happy holiday look like a wake.
The weird stuff comes at the end of the first act, when Joe gives up whatever’s left of his manly honor and becomes Norma’s male concubine — to use a term that wouldn’t be out of place in Norma’s epic drama, “Salome.” But Norma’s (and Close’s) greatest moment comes in the second act, when she has Max drive her to the Paramount backlot, believing that DeMille has called her there to studio to deliver her script.
Sweeping onto the film set with the air of a goddess, Norma is at last in her dreamworld, where Close delivers a genuine show-stopper in “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” There’s more to come, and Close relishes every bit of Norma’s descent into madness. But if you want to see grown men weeping in the aisles, this is your moment.