Published on May 30th, 2024 | by Sandro Falce

Sunset Boulevard (Melbourne, Princess Theatre) Review

Sunset Boulevard (Melbourne, Princess Theatre) Review Sandro Falce

Summary: Sunset Boulevard leaves a lot to be desired, there are many highlights that shine through.


Old Hollywood Returns!

It’s the 1950s. Hollywood is thriving, writers are writing, and the actors talk now! Well, they have been talking in movies for multiple decades at this point, but not all of Hollywood has moved on from the silent era. In a derelict mansion on Sunset Boulevard, one of these silent stars is waiting for her chance to make her grand return, and when a screenwriter agrees to help her out with a script, she finally tries to seize that opportunity.

Based on the classic comedy noir film, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard is back on Australian stages. It’s just opened in Melbourne at the Princess Theatre and will run until August 11th, before heading up to Sydney for a couple of months at the Opera House.

Almost thirty years have passed since the musical first premiered here in Australia, but now it is back and has brought a pretty big name with it. Sunset Boulevard sees the long-awaited musical theatre return of Sarah Brightman, who plays the role of Norma Desmond, the ageing star. Brightman has a lot of vocal talent, it’s hard for anyone to argue that she doesn’t, however her performance on opening night was surprisingly weak. Many of her songs slowed the show to a halt and, at times, were a chore to sit through, especially as the orchestra seemed to always be slightly out of time compared to Brightman’s vocals. There were many moments during her songs where I went for a minute or two without being able to make out any of the lyrics, which, for a musical like this, is not ideal. The character leaves a lot to be desired as well, as all the nuance that Norma Desmond has in the original movie is completely lost in this rendition of the story.

And that seemed to be the running theme for most of this play. It just isn’t a very good adaptation of the classic film. This can also be seen in the character of Joe Gillis, played by Tim Draxl. Joe’s character is the narrator, with Draxl having a lot of asides during the performance, singing exposition and filling in all the plot-related gaps. Draxl does a fantastic job in the performance, there are many numbers where he impressed me with his incredibly capable singing chops, particularly in the opening number of Act II where I couldn’t stop myself from clapping as soon as he sang the final note. However, the character’s writing is incredibly flat compared to the source material. I constantly found myself wanting more from Joe and Norma.

The rest of the performances are excellent and bring a lot of energy to this production. Stand-outs include Jarrod Draper as Artie, Robert Grubb’s Max, and especially Ashleigh Rubenach as Joe’s love interest. Betty. Her voice soared on stage and I found myself smiling whenever we got a scene with her. I would’ve loved to see a version of this show that is just Rubenach and Draxl singing a collection of solos and duets as their chemistry was excellent.

There were a few moments in the play where the age of the source material showed, especially during any scenes in the Paramount Pictures studio lot. While there, we get the ensemble dressed up in outfits that would easily be considered problematic nowadays, although, with the show being set in 1950s Hollywood, I can see how this is accurate to the period. I can’t help but wonder if this is a part of the show that could’ve been edited though, especially cringeworthy moments when the orchestra breaks out into stereotypical Middle Eastern music to highlight the characters in costume. This moment in the movie is used to show how problematic and exploitative Hollywood can be, however, when put on the stage it just comes off as a joke in poor taste.

Another comedic moment that didn’t work was the entirety of the number “The Lady’s Paying”, where we get a collection of salesmen from a local Men’s Shop picking out new outfits for Joe to wear. While the melody and the lyrics of this song are quite fun, and the ensemble brings some upbeat energy with their choreography, the approach the director chose to take with this piece was alarmingly dated. It was like I was transported back to the 90s. The joke here is that these men are quite effeminate. That’s the joke. That’s it. I was quite shocked that mainstream theatre is still perpetuating the stereotype of flamboyant men and calling them a joke.

The multiple sets of Sunset Boulevard are excellent, they have a lot of detail and bring a great sense of scale to the show. Equally, the lighting design by Mark Henderson is impressive. The lights are subtle when they need to be, and right in your face (literally) when the story calls for them to be. There was a clever moment near the end of the show where the lights were used in a very creative way to point out various paintings around one of the sets.

While this new Sunset Boulevard production leaves a lot to be desired, the highlights really do shine through. And while the show may stumble at many moments throughout the performance, there are a lot of performers and creatives who should feel proud of their work here. Maybe this rendition of the show just needed a couple more touchups before saying that it was ready for its close-up.

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