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Sunset Boulevard review – Nicole Scherzinger dazzles in Jamie Lloyd’s radical makeover | Musical comedies

We expect the unexpected from Jamie Lloyd. The director’s 2019 revival of Evita gave Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical a hipster edginess, and the same goes for this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1993 musical, to which he brings fierce unpredictability.

Based on Billy Wilder’s film about struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis and his relationship of convenience with faded Hollywood starlet Norma Desmond, it is about this original medium. A black and white film is produced on stage and projected on a gigantic rear screen. The credits roll at the beginning and end. The cameras follow the characters, capturing their faces in magnified proportions. So it’s clear that everyone here is always ready for their close-ups, not just Norma.

Don Black and Christopher Hampton’s book preserves some of the best lines from the script, and although the score seems explosive at times and many of the songs seem unmemorable, the singing dazzles on every level. Nicole Scherzinger as Norma is not only a terrific singer but, as a celebrity playing a woman dealing with the loss of her own celebrity, she draws inspiration from the casting for its circularity. The series has a wonderful sense of reinvention, with a final scene so arresting that it surprises even those who know what’s coming. So why, with all this richness, does it leave this critique so distant and agitated?

Perhaps because the overabundance of concepts is not unified. It begins like a film noir, all darkness and smoke on the empty set of Soutra Gilmour, while the second half takes on horror film overtones with manic lighting (by Jack Knowles) and frenzied choreography (by Fabian Aloise). The meta elements take us behind the scenes, as Joe is filmed walking past a photo of Scherzinger from his Pussycat Dolls days, into his dressing room, and past the theater itself. It all draws circles within circles, is playful in its humor, but sits strangely at odds with the otherwise brooding tone of the production. An exploration of celebrity culture is found in the meta-looks at Scherzinger’s fame, but these also provoke a conflict between the has-been character portrayed on stage and the superstar status of the actor playing him.

Tom Francis as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard.
Horror movie overtones… Tom Francis as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard. Photography: Marc Brenner

Meanwhile, the characters are inscrutable and we cannot access their emotions. Lloyd employs the same overt non-naturalism as in his revival of The Seagull, which is why the actors often speak directly to us with discreet expressions. Where technology hypnotized us then, it now seems to take some distance. Joe (Tom Francis) looks like a cipher, impassive for too long. In the film he is repulsed by Norma’s advances but here he responds enthusiastically to her New Year’s kiss. It’s an interesting twist but one that is unfounded. Is he in love with Norma as well as aspiring screenwriter Betty (Grace Hodgett Young)?

Scherzinger channels neither Gloria Swanson’s queen nor Glenn Close’s imperious but human Norma from 2016. Instead, she’s hammy, monstrous and wacky in her narcissism, preening on camera, pouting on Instagram and performing explicitly the vulnerability. Although she comes so far behind the scenes that there is a sense of physical intimacy, she is flatly drawn and devoid of any humanity – a horror movie succubus or murderous gorgon who would literally kill for another 15 minutes of fame.

There’s great vocal power in the songs, including the titular number, Sunset Boulevard, by Joe, as well as New Ways to Dream and As If We Never Said Goodbye by Norma. The pace is slowed down for the songs and borders on inertia, while the radicalism of Lloyd’s staging stumbles against Lloyd Webber’s much less radical score.

However, this will certainly provoke strong reactions. For some, it may be the show of the year. For me, it was emotionally empty. Either way, few people will come away indifferent.

At the Savoy Theatre, London, until January 6


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