Sunset Boulevard review: soaring melodies and exquisite acting


by Esther Morris

As an avid musical theatre fan, it is not an easy thing for me to admit that I was not all too familiar with Sunset Boulevard before seeing the touring production at the Wales Millennium Centre; however, I certainly left with the soaring melodies stuck in my head and the feeling that I could have happily watched it again the following evening. The musical is based on the 1950 Oscar-winning film of the same title and has enjoyed a number of productions and tours, and this production is one I will be recommending to anyone who has the opportunity to see it.

Sunset Boulevard, a musical with book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, tells the story of Norma Desmond, played by Ria Jones, a once famous actress of the silent film era, who refuses to accept the end of her film career. When she meets struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, played charmingly by Danny Mac, she surreptitiously involves him in her plan to return to her former fame and success through various forms of manipulation.

The opening number of the show immediately set the production in good stead, with every slight transition being incredibly clean and smooth, whether it was set, choreography, or otherwise; this was clearly a very well-rehearsed show. The costumes in this particular scene, as well as Jones’ costumes throughout the show, were highly impressive, and the use of set and lighting was very effective; the famous staircase in Norma Desmond’s manor was also utilised in other scenes by coming apart and taking on the role of a feature of an entirely different location.
The use of old-fashioned film cameras, as well as the modern use of a film screen, projected onto the stage was very powerful, with the film screen offering an interesting take on the production while consolidating the Hollywood themes of the show; this was especially useful in Joe’s car getaway scene, which was later echoed by Betty’s frantic drive to Sunset Boulevard.

The performances from all of the lead actors were excellent, and credit must be given to the vocal performances of each; the fun and characterful voices of Mac and Molly Lynch, who played Betty, offered a delightful contrast to the powerhouse vocals of Jones and Adam Pearce, who played Max. Pearce’s vocals were outstanding, and his character became more and more unsettling as the story unfolded, which was again a pleasant contrast to the sarcastic and charismatic Joe.

Of course, particular recognition must be given to Jones, who originated the role of Norma Desmond in workshops almost thirty years ago. Her vocals were incredibly powerful, and her choices to switch from a more gentle tone to a strong belt seemed almost effortless. Her performance of the iconic song ‘With One Look’ was particularly impressive, and the applause from the audience began before the song ended – even almost immediately after she began her final note. Her acting must also be commended, with her expressive face helping to articulate the mad intensity of Desmond’s character as well as making her background as a silent film actor all the more believable.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable production, with set and lighting standing out in particular and truly breathing life into the show. Costume and makeup were also excellent, but it was the talent of the lead performers who made the show so incredible.