One of Melbourne's more celebrated non-professional musical theatre companies, CLOC Musical Theatre has scored a coup in being the first to be able to present Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard to its audiences.
Based on the classic Billy Wilder 1950s film that starred a young William Holden and captured a tour de force performance from Gloria Swanson, who's career mirrored the storyline of the central character, Norma Desmond (Swanson too had been a Silent Movie star who was making a comeback, sorry, 'return' in this scathing attack on Hollywood).
Adapting the work was on Lloyd Webber's agenda for some time, before finally coming to the stage, albeit with its own history of misshaps and controversy. Lloyd Webber collaborated with writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton and co-orchestrated the work with David Cullen. For those film buffs who know and love the film, this collaboration ensured the original story received very few changes, and even kept a lot of the film's memorable dialogue.
The result was actually one of Lloyd Webber's better efforts, with a number of memorable tunes including the title song Sunset Boulevard, and the often performed, With One Look and As If We Never Said Goodbye. Choosing to underscore most of the dialogue with a lovely score kept the tone and style of the original work.
The storyline begins dramatically with a death, and through narration, backtracks to the series of events that led to that fateful night. Joe Gillis is a struggling scriptwriter trying to make it in the movie capital who finds himself on the run from debt collectors. While being chased he turns into the driveway of a mansion on Sunset Boulevard and due to mistaken identity, not only meets the famed Norma Desmond, but manages to get himself a job helping her complete her script of Salome – the 'return' that she desperately wants to star in for Cecil B DeMille.
Norma is of course delusional, middle-aged and living in a reality that is being kept alive by her faithful butler, Max. She falls in love with the handsome young writer, but when he spurns her and threatens to leave, her fragile mind slips into madness and tragedy orchestrates that now famous final line – "Mr DeMille, I am ready for my close-up".
CLOC have certainly taken up the challenge in presenting this work with aplomb. The complex design requires the stage to transform from outside a Hollywood mansion, to the studios of famed Paramount Pictures, to the opulent interior of Norma's home, complete with the now famous staircase. Brenton Staples' set design and his team of builders have to be commended on bringing this to fruition so successfully.
While Stelios Karagiannis' lighting design complemented the design very well, better use could have been made of the lighting in key scenes, such as the moment a lighting operator finds Norma with his follow spot on the sound stage. The moving light should have been more obvious, gentler, and bathed her.
The large emsemble perform uniformly well, although some of the blocking, with so many on stage at one time, could have been tidier, especially in the final scene.
The success of the work is also very dependent on the four key principals. Alexandra Clover is quite lovely as Betty Schaeffer, the bright, talented writer that Joe falls for. Both her singing and her stage presence make the most of her key scenes.
Phillip Lambert is impressive as the mysterious Max. Mark Doran has the difficult role of Joe Gillis. While he looks the part and sings the role very well, he needs to bring more charisma to the role, especially in the scenes with Betty which should illuminate the romantic spark between them.
The plum role of Norma is played by professional veteran Maureen Andrew. Again, Andrew's singing ability meets the vocal demands of the role, but the intricacies of the character (from the grand over-the-top gestures of a Silent Movie star to the descent into madness) are not always captured effectively. There are some lovely moments though, including Norma's final scene, played powerfully and movingly by Andrew.
Director Chris Bradke, musical director Andrew McCalman and the company have managed to successfully bring together a production that will continue to grow stonger throughout the show's limited season.
CLOC Musical Theatre presents
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber | Lyrics by Don Black & Christopher Hampton
Venue: National Theatre, St Kilda
Dates: May 4 – 19, 2012
Bookings: 1300 362 547 | www.cloc.org.au