Finally, a killer ‘Sunset Boulevard’ with the perfect Norma Desmond

Finally, a killer ‘Sunset Boulevard’ with the perfect Norma Desmond

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LONDON — “Let’s get a look at you!” exclaims Hawkeye, the back-lot spotlight operator, as Norma Desmond, in the form of drop-dead dazzling Nicole Scherzinger, stands before us like a haunted moth, drawn to the all-consuming flame.

The powerful white light fixes on her slender, dancer’s figure, cloaked in a satiny black shift, and the audience at the Savoy Theatre is now the moth to her flame. What happens next in director Jamie Lloyd’s killer revival of “Sunset Boulevard” — killer because it obliterates the memory of all other versions of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical — is a rendition of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” that accomplishes the aim of theater at its devilish best. It slays you, too.

Incorporating techniques that hearken a Hollywood age before, as Norma puts it, “the pictures got smaller,” Jamie Lloyd’s “Sunset Boulevard” not only illuminates the 1994 musical in a big, new way, it also gives an exhilarating boost to the entire revival genre.

By creating a captivating filmic framework and adding the hypnotic modern choreography of Fabian Aloise, Lloyd finds visual vocabularies that heighten the story’s epic thrust. In an equally successful conceit, Lloyd Webber’s music, roaring and swelling like the melodramatic movie scores of yore, provides surefire enhancement for the larger-than-life images the director brings to the Savoy stage.

End of carousel

Largest of all is the amazing Scherzinger, who conveys the manipulativeness, the glamour, the brutal terror of a movie goddess sent crashing back down to earth. Previous incarnations of the musical, starring the likes of Glenn Close, Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley, sought to pay homage to the star of Billy Wilder’s seminal 1950 movie, Gloria Swanson, herself at the time a faded silent-film queen. Lloyd changes up the playbook in a version both of its time and out of it: This Norma would not be caught dead wearing a Hollywood dinosaur’s turban.

No, Scherzinger is her own Norma, aware not just of the power of celebrity — even if it’s only of the where-is-she-now? kind — but also of her sexual power. It makes sense that this vital Norma is driven mad by Tinseltown’s obsession with youth. What’s the old joke? A Hollywood actress goes from ingenue to district attorney to “Driving Miss Daisy”?

The notion of her visceral power is reiterated every time Scherzinger opens up her throat for one of Lloyd Webber’s big numbers, especially Act 1’s intoxicating “With One Look.” Music director Alan Williams’s 17-member orchestra and Adam Fisher’s sound design strongly contribute to the ear-filling richness. Indeed, the design elements, including a film noir palette in the sets and costumes by Soutra Gilmour, are all of a dynamic piece.

Whose inspired idea was recruiting Scherzinger, best known as the lead singer of the Pussycat Dolls? (And more recently a fixture on TV talent shows.) Her casting as erstwhile screen siren is the production’s most exciting brainstorm; you can imagine her as a celluloid Cleopatra. Still, it’s far from the only smart choice. With videographers roaming the Savoy stage, projecting actors’ faces onto a huge screen so crisply you can see into their pores, the director ingeniously invites the camera to be a full artistic partner.

Lloyd makes mischief, too, with theatrical transparency. Wait for the funny sequence in which the cameras, “Saturday Night Live” style, trail backstage behind Tom Francis, himself a sterling presence as the doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis. It’s an effort at demystification, in keeping with the spirit of a musical about the human toll of mythmaking. Dreams figure prominently in the self-conscious lyrics of Don Black and Christopher Hampton: “We gave the world new ways to dream,” goes one of the musical’s constant refrains. “Sunset Boulevard” is very much concerned with the tawdry dreams Hollywood sells.

Other major characters, including David Thaxton’s Max von Mayerling, Norma’s all-purpose amanuensis, and Grace Hodgett Young’s Betty Schaefer, the studio assistant who falls in love with Joe, have been smartly rethought: Max’s grating lugubriousness has been erased thanks to Thaxton’s virile, brooding portrayal, and Young’s Betty seems stronger — more conscious of Hollywood’s cynical establishment — and therefore, more appealingly contemporary.

The evening, though, rises and falls on Norma. And Scherzinger ascends and ascends and ascends. Or maybe descends is the better verb. As the star’s grip on reality, and on Joe, falters, we go straight to figurative hell with horror-movie Norma. Protesting one last desperate time that she is the greatest star of all, Scherzinger twists Norma’s features grotesquely: She looks for a disquieting moment like Voldemort.

At long, long last, she’s ready for her crackup.

Sunset Boulevard, music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Directed by Jamie Lloyd. Choreography, Fabian Aloise; set and costumes, Soutra Gilmour; music direction, Alan Williams; lighting Jack Knowles; sound, Adam Fisher; video and cinematography, Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom. With Ahmed Hamad. About 2 hours 40 minutes. At Savoy Theatre, London. sunsetboulevardwestend.com.

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