Thus proclaim all the
bus shelters in Toronto, as Livent prepares to replace Diahann
Carrol and Sunset Boulevard with Ragtime
in November. The musical has had mixed reviews that presented
no compelling reason to exert the effort to see it. None, that
is, until we realized it might just be bad enough and expensive
enough to fade into total obscurity after it closes, and there
would be one more Andrew Lloyd Webber opus that we would have
to be content to hear only Barbra Streisand's recorded interpretations.
-----So we finally went.
-----If it were only for the music, then Barbra Streisand has it sewn up. If it was for the emotional pull, then stick to the Gloria Swanson original. But if it was for the formula-perfect mind-blowing design and carefully-merchandised musical that Webber has virtually patented, then it was a rewarding experience. Like Phantom and Cats and Joseph and Aspects and Superstar and Kiss and....
-----Sunset Boulevard is the story of an aging silent movie queen who, in her bygone days of glory, could "With One Look" [the only memorable tune] turn her audience into adoring fans. The advent of sound and spectacle, however, has passed over individual talent, leaving faded Norma Desmond (Diahann Carrol) alone, with an overprotective butler (Walter Charles) who writes dozens of "fan mail" letters daily to assuage here un-faded ego as she writes her own come-back script. Another victim of Hollywood's excesses, out-of-work screenwriter Joe Gillis (Rex Smith), falls into her opulent and self-indulgent web (and eventually, her pool), a victim of his greed and her madness.
-----As the aging movie queen, Carrol is only barely believable. As a preposterous drag queen under a ton of makeup, perhaps. Colour aside, is this imperious beauty with the magnificent voice really supposed to be pushing 80 and unable to make it in the talkies? Better her, I suppose, than the non-singer bunny-boiler, Glenn Close, who opened the play in the States to too much media hype and forced appreciation.
-----The best voice in the entire Canadian production is that of Karen Fineman, who recently has stepped in to play Betty Schaefer, the abandoned love interest of gold bricker Joe Gillis, and is now one of the brightest spots in the show.
-----But the star of the show, once again, is John Napier, production designer. If you've seen Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon or Starlight Express, you've seen John Napier. A deserving recipient of a fair share of the $12million budget, Napier has created excitement on the stage when little else exists to merit it. His centrepiece is the opulently filigreed grand hall of the Desmond estate, including the staircase that poor Ms Carroll must ascend and descend countless times each performance. Even this magnificent set, which fills the full expanse of the Ford Centre's stage, lifts and shifts to allow a split-screen effect. When the music drones into the trademarked Webber monotony and the emotions slip from the untenable peaks of artifice, you can always rely on Napier to pull another stage trick to command your attention. An example? The opening scene, with luckless Gillis floating face down in a pool of water and the audience vantage point is looking up, through the water.
-----All that said, the show is certainly not bad. It is excellent, in fact, as every one of Webber's productions are - almost predictably, boringly, wonderful. You will go, be swept up into the magic (we even bought a Sunset Boulevard coffee mug!), oooh and aaah, and it may not be until a day or so later that you realize the earth didn't move.
-----To order your tickets before the Sun sets, call TicketMaster or Livent (416-872-2222). Prices are $52.50 to $93 and it is showing in the conveniently located Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, just north of the 401 on Yonge Street in North York.