SUNSET BOULEVARD at Birmingham Hippodrome

It is hard to believe that the musical version of Sunset Boulevard is now nearly twenty-five years old, and therein lies a production challenge – how do you take a well known Andrew Lloyd Webber show on a national tour without it being or appearing tired? I am pleased to say that Michael Harrison, David Ian and Curve were able to put on a production that was both fresh and slick in all respects, from an ingenious set to a cast of real star quality.

The set was somewhat aided by the fin de siècle interior of the Birmingham Hippodrome, replete with its grand boxes and crystal chandeliers that echo the era of Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ of silent film. The lighting and onstage detail were thoroughly thought through, with black and white film projections on giant studio doors that slid effortlessly away to reveal a variety of scenes from Paramount Studios, to a pharmacy cum diner, to the grand mansion house of the femme fatale, Norma Desmond. Great effects were achieved with the imaginative use of a car interior racing against a rolling film backdrop of passing streets in a pastiche reminiscent of Hitchcock. In the grand mansion we were treated to one of the sweeping staircases so beloved of 1950’s cinema, which would be cleverly broken up, bent and twisted to form new environments.

All of the scenery and set changes were quick, effortless and dynamic, making full use of the enthusiastic ensemble of supporting cast members. Their energy was a key feature in the production, starting with a high tempo scene at Paramount, where the sense of the hustle and bustle of the cut throat American movie industry was brilliantly conveyed. The pit orchestra was given a good early workout too. Conducted by Andrew Kirk, they were tight and balanced throughout.

For those unfamiliar with the story, this is a musical theatre presentation of a 1950’s movie in the genre of a film noir. We are taken from a death scene in a Beverley Hills mansion back in time to where the origins of the crime began. Our guide is a scriptwriter down on his luck, Joe Gillis, played by Danny Mac. By chance, Gillis becomes acquainted with a former silent movie idol, Norma Desmond, as acted by Ria Jones. Through her meeting with Gillis, Desmond sees an opportunity of a return to her former days of glory. But, when Gillis chooses to ignore his early instincts concerning her sanity, things are destined to go awry.

Ria Jones gave a masterclass performance as Norma Desmond, owning every scene with polished stagecraft, dark charisma and a mighty vocal. Unfortunately for Danny Mac, though he didn’t put a foot wrong with his acting, dancing or singing, he was always going to struggle vocally when onstage with Jones. It didn’t help him that the main supporting actor, Adam Pearce playing Max Von Meyerling, was also a very strong bass singer, quite brilliant in fact. Indeed, it was Pearce that prevented the über-talented Jones from simply stealing the show. Nonetheless, Mac had his moment of glory in the opening number of the second act, Sunset Boulevard, which he delivered with great passion. There were also quality acting and vocal performances from Molly Lynch as Betty Schaefer and Carl Sanderson as Cecil B. DeMille, in what was an all-round excellent production.   ★★★★★   Robert Gainer    14th November 2017