This simple, hyphenated word brings terror to the hearts of musical theatre fans everywhere, for as every production putting this concept to use (e.g. Sam Mendes’s Cabaret and John Doyle’s Company) shows, there are just as many proponents of creativity as there are decriers of the reduced, simplified arrangements and often passable but not impressive playing, let alone the claims that one craft is impinging on the other’s place. As long as small theatres like the Watermill continue wishing to produce musicals, however, the need for compromise will occur.
The new Sunset Blvd. is another Watermill birth: the actors are the orchestra, and a formerly grand show is re-imagined as a chamber piece. I never saw the original, lavish productions in the 90’s, which gave me nothing to compare this production to causing me to judge this production cold (and not just because my companion for the afternoon was running late!)
I won’t bother to include a synopsis, as the details are available on Wiki and both the musical and the original film on which it is based have been skewered countless times, including a brilliant rendition on Tiny Toon Adventures, so even those not directly familiar with the work are likely to have been exposed to some aspect of the story. I will say, however, that the material left me neutral. I enjoyed myself, and a number of the songs are great (the opening “Let’s do Lunch,” the sarcastic “Every Film is a Circus,” and the frantic title song) but the score is decidedly middle of the road for Lord Lloyd-Webber and while Sunset Blvd. is thoroughly professional and dramaturgically sound, the original film is a timeless classic and gains little from being musical-ised.
Getting back to this rendition, however, I felt the actor-musician concept worked. While I was quite impressed technically - the actors are constantly switching off instruments - I felt the concept neither added nor detracted from the material. The arrangements weren’t particularly thin, but I do wonder if they intentionally snuck a few riffs in as I heard bits of Phantom and Les Miz sneaking into the background on some songs.
What DID work to the production’s benefit, however, was size. We see events unfold from Joe’s perspective, and Diego Pitarch’s small set with its cold, steel revolving staircase lent itself to the cramped quarters at the Comedy. Playing the show in a large set would add to the sense of decay, but the mounting pressures and tensions play better in a venue that promotes the human over the mechanical. That said, I felt that the intimacy and the claustrophobia must have been diminished over the tinier Watermill and I was only in the first circle.
While the actors may still be finding their roles again in the new space, the performances I saw from the four principles were almost all mixed: Kathryn Evans as the great Norma Desmond only hit her stride in the second act, though once she did she easily made up for any earlier failings. Ben Goddard found the piece’s comedy as the acerbic Joe, but seemed absent (and musically off) from his second act love scene with Laura Pitt-Pulford’s bland Betty. In my book, the only actor to maintain his presence and intensity for the entire performance was Dave Willetts as the delightfully and domineeringly creepy Max.
In short? There’s nothing bad or particularly wrong about this Sunset, but it never quite hits the point of greatness that it strives for. Musical fans (especially ALW fans) should go, but I don’t feel right recommending it for, say, the once a year crowd. A strictly middle of the road Meh from me.
Where: Comedy Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, W/Sa @ 14:30, varies for Christmas week.
How Much: £17-£64
Concessions: Likely, check at the box office. Preview tickets are £10-£20 off.
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £25
RZ Other Notes: The original production of Sunset Blvd. was so lavish that it ran for years and never made a cent in profit due to ongoing expenses and some rather costly personnel choices. I suspect that this production will not have the same problems.