SUNSET Boulevard, based as it is on the Billy Wilder film of the same name, depends on the casting of a rock solid, completely confident and fully capable singer and actor in the role of Norma Desmond, the aging silent film star who hopes for one final revival, despite the coming of the talkies. Maureen Wycherley is everything the role requires: full of glamour, style, panache, able sing with a quiet, lyrical sensitivity in some parts of a song, and then with a strong, almost operatic power when needed, and a talented actor, bringing out a wonderful vulnerability in the role, but also a sinister control over those around her.
BLOC Productions should be very proud to have her as part of their company, as they should also be of this wonderfully evocative production, which was an absolute delight from the opening shots to the final curtain.
The delight of such an amateur production is to see such a big stage as that of the Hippodrome filled with chorus – no limit on numbers because of the tight budgets of a professional tour – with real crowds at society and New Year’s Eve parties and all over Lot 18 of the film studio, large numbers of male tailors and dressers, and conversely female beauticians and therapists, all singing and dancing their hearts out, including Assistant Choreographer Adele Stitch as one of the featured dancers, easily noticeable wherever she cropped up.
There was great attention to detail too, from the amazing set with its huge photographs of Norma in her heyday, to the wonderful costumes, especially those of the star, and minor details such as the swimming pool, into which a character effortlessly falls, and despite a few balance issues on the opening night, a great mix of amplified singing and a lovely big orchestra, relishing every part of Lloyd Webber’s lush arrangements, and able to switch immediately from huge musical set pieces to much smaller jazz themes for the sung narration.
Desmond’s slightly creepy butler Max only has a couple of songs on his own, but they were sung with such lyrical sensitivity that I would love to hear Dylan Cheasley sing some of the great roles of musical theatre, from Valjean to the Phantom. I note that he has played the title role in Sweeney Todd, and as Maureen Wycherley has played Mrs Lovett, surely this is a dream casting of the future.
Joe Gillis, the struggling writer who is charmed into the life of Desmond and her butler, is played with just the right amount of swagger by Mike Griffiths, who either suffered a little from opening night microphone issues, or perhaps was relying a little too much on the magic of amplification, as a few of his words were lost, especially in duets with Norma and Betty, who was played with an innocent honesty by Jane Williams. Having said that, the love duet between Joe and Betty, Too Much In Love To Care, was not only sung well, but also lit beautifully, with the star-filled sky changing from a deep blue to a dark red, under a full moon.
The highlight, for me, was the big song of the show, As If We Never Said Goodbye, surely the closest to Sondheim that Lloyd Webber, with a lot of help from Don Black’s lyrics, has ever come. Wycherley delivers this as though she is saying the words for the first, and only, time, with a breath control that rivals Streisand, hardly seeming to breathe at all, and varying her vocal from a light, conversational tone to a powerful, passionate, yet controlled, full soprano voice, filling the auditorium with music. For the first time in many years, I wished that the shouts of “encore” had worked, and I would gladly have listened to her sing it a second time.
This is a good show, one of Lloyd Webber’s cleverer and more demanding works, and BLOC have delivered an honest, tight, slick, and thoroughly entertaining production of it.