A Melange of Glamour, Tragedy, and Timeless Resonance!

Sunset Boulevard Rating

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The Princess Theatre was packed to the brim for the grand opening of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard Musical. After nearly three decades, this reimagined production, presented by Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment made a triumphant return to Australia.

The musical premiered in 1993 at London’s West End and later that year in Los Angeles, receiving solid ticket sales. The Musical won an astounding 7 Tony awards in 1995 including best book, music, and lyrics awarded to Don Black, Christopher Hampton, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Sunset Boulevard is a captivating exploration of the darker side of dreams and the consequences of chasing them in the brutality and glamour of Hollywood. Taking the essence from the original 1950s Billy Wilder film and under the astute direction of Paul Warwick Griffin, this classic Noir musical weaves together satire, melodrama, and comedy into a mesmerising visual and auditory feast.

Narrated posthumously by the main protagonist, Joe Gillis, we are immersed in his sardonic flashback on the price he pays for a lavish lifestyle and fame. Through his eyes, we witness the tragic demise of a man drawn into the twisted delusions of Norma Desmond, a once-glamorous silent film star whose obsession with youth, stardom, and unrequited love leads her down a path of insanity.

The stage design in Sunset Boulevard captures both the allure and the shadows of this story. The incorporation of technology is truly ingenious, like at the start of Act 1 when the stage is completely engulfed by a lifeless body floating in a pool. The set centers around a magnificent gothic Hollywood mansion, featuring rich, dark embellishments illuminated by flickering candles, creating an atmosphere of opulence, drama, and tension.

The messages and themes in the musical are beautifully supported by the well-thought-out dramatic lighting that intentionally guides the audience’s attention. The standout closing scene, when Norma plays out Salome’s wild dance and finally receives the desperately-desired attention on “stage” is made powerful with the use of projections and handheld cameras as she stares directly into the the lens.

Likewise, the contrast in costume design between the vibrant, aspiring Hollywood stars and the lavish, nostalgic outfits worn by Norma beautifully reinforced the underlying message of Sunset Boulevard. It symbolized the industry’s tendency to discard old stars while embracing the new.

Returning to the theatre for the first time in 30 years, Sarah Brightman stars as the larger-than-life diva role of Norma Desmond. As she graces the stage, the audience seems enthralled by her almost regal aura. Brightman has an impressive history in theatre and is famously remembered for her portrayal of Christine Daaé, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera”, a score that was originally written for Brightman. However, whilst she looks the part of Norma, her delivery feels somewhat subdued, and her articulation, at times, unclear.

Joining Sarah is Australian actor Tim Draxl who plays Joe Gillis. He has an engaging presence and a voice that effectively communicates his character’s emotional journey. He morphs from an ambitious and frustrated screenwriter to a man with conflicted feelings towards Norma, a man in love with Betty Schaefer, and then an observing narrator. Norma’s loyal butler and former husband, Max Von Mayerling, is portrayed by Robert Grubb, a well-known name in Australian theatre. His stage presence gives a sense of authority, sophistication, and loyalty, mirroring his years of service and mysterious relationship with Norma. The young ambitious screenwriter who became Joe’s love interest, Betty Schaefer, is played by Asheligh Rubenach. She is delightful in the role, effervescent and sweet, demonstrating a fine contrast to the fading star, Norma. The overall theatrical experience is richly enhanced by the combination of Lloyd Webber’s brilliant score and a live orchestra under the masterful direction of Paul Christ.

The cast of Sunset Boulevard is rich with an abundance of talent. Theatrical performer Jarrod Draper playes the role of Artie Green, Betty’s fiancée. Paul Hanlon and Troy Sussman respectively play Cecil B DeMille and Sheldrake. The brilliant ensemble cast also includes Regan Barber, Amy Berrisford, Billy Bourchier, Campbell Braithwaite, Benjamin Colley, Grace Driscoll, Madison Green, Peter Ho, Leah Lim, Mary McCorry, Charlotte Page, Morgan Palmer, Caity Plummer, Taylor Scanlan, Tom Sharah, Lisa Sontag, Riley Sutton and Dean Vince. Set and Costume Design by Morgan Large. Choreography by Ashley Wallen and Musical Supervision by Kristen Blodgette.

Sunset Boulevard remains relevant today where people are obsessed with celebrity culture, the pursuit of success, the price of living in a world driven by illusion, and the desire for validation. Other themes include aging, loneliness, and the loss of relevance, they each speak universally to the human experience.

This review also appears on It’s On The House. Check out more reviews at Whats The Show to see what else is on in your town.

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