Glenn Close enters the stage, and with one look, the audience goes wild. It soon becomes obvious that she can do no wrong. This is a Norma Desmond who is far more camp, far more of the gargoyle, than in her previous incarnation. The bright red, nearly maroon fright wig is a giveaway, as are the super-arched brows and the eyes that open way too wide. But the costumes are glorious; there’s so much gold, Norma almost seems gilded. Big, bold statement jewelry any aficionado would covet completes the glamour festival. With her perfect posture and sweeping gestures, Close is every bit the queen of the screen, if somewhat faded. The singing voice is wobbly, but nobody in the house really cares.
Kudos must also be given to Michael Xavier who brings just the right combination of swagger, desperation, and empathy to the role of Norma’s prey, the hapless Joe Gillis. If there’s any criticism to be expressed, it’s that he’s much too handsome to be a writer. His voice is commanding, strong and clear, and it’s a treat to watch his rampant cynicism turn to compassion. His credits reveal him to be a Shakespearean actor, and it shows. Glenn Close would easily overpower a lesser presence; this tall, lanky Brit goes toe-to-toe with her, and it’s clearly obvious why Norma wants this Joe woven into her web.
This is a much scaled down staging of Sunset Boulevard, and I must admit that I do miss the lavish sets of the original production. Director Lonny Price does a masterful job of striking exactly the right note, and making sure that Norma Desmond is still big, even though the set has gotten small.
It’s a bit distracting at times to watch the action take place in front the enormous forty piece orchestra, the largest on Broadway for eighty years. But the setting is perfect for the first number, in which the mantra is the oft repeated “Let’s Have Lunch.” Show people meet and greet in a frantic dance of recognition, tepid affection, and the eternal hope that maybe someone can do something for Me. Sincerity is not the word of the day; anxiety is. No wonder Joe, in debt $300 to some shady gangster types, and worried about losing his car, is so concerned about keeping up a good front as he grows more and more desperate. Can you lend me some money? Can you get me some work? Pride goes down the drain, but a prosperous façade must somehow be sustained.
Glenn Close won a Tony for her portrayal of Norma 22 years ago, and gives another award worthy performance now. Indeed, Close won an Evening Standard award for her portrayal in the 2016 West End production, which was a sold-out, limited engagement, and a much appreciated opportunity for London to worship her as much as Broadway does. There is no mistaking Glenn Close’s effect on her audience. We are her people in the dark, and we adore her.