Venue: Birmingham Hippodrome

Production Run: Mon 13 - Sat 18 November 2017

Performance Reviewed: Mon 13 November (Press Night)

For a show that pivots around the intoxicating allure of the golden age of Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard deserves immediate kudos for so enthrallingly recapturing that essence of the silver screen on the stage. Like the fabled cinematic epics of its era, this is an extravagant, opulent delight of a touring production, one that surpasses the majority of its contemporaries in both ambition and execution, not least of all owing to the full, 14-piece orchestra that bring one of Lloyd-Webber’s most majestic scores to life to stunning effect.

Yes, the artifice is front and centre in Sunset: much like it’s infamous lead, fading and deluded once-was Norma Desmond (Ria Jones), it understands that appearance and perception is everything. Give good face, put on a good show, and the audience will be captivated, surely?

After all, who needs substance when you can captivate just ‘with one look’?

That’s not to say it’s an overtly shallow or rudimentary piece; there’s commentary on the fleeting nature of celebrity and the callous flippancy of studio bigwigs that remains as prevalent today as ever, but at its core Boulevard remains a streamlined, cautionary tale of obsession, misguided affection and dangerous self-delusion.

Down-on-his-luck aspiring screenwriter Joe Gillis (Danny Mac) isn’t quite living his Hollywood dream. His latest script is getting brushed off by the Hollywood higher-ups, whilst debt-collecting bailiffs chase him down to tow away his car. 

Enter Norma Desmond.

Fading star of the silent era, into whose home and life Gillis crashes, and the start of an unlikely relationship blooms. For him, it is one of convenience and security, as he agrees to work on the obsessive Desmond’s self-penned return to the limelight. For her, she sees an avenue back into the spotlight, not to mention a burgeoning attraction to the young writer (it is Danny Mac, after all...).

As Gillis becomes further intoxicated and entrapped within Desmond’s reclusive, self-aggrandising world, so too does he turn the head of young studio assistant Betty Schaefer (Molly Lynch), who encourages him to develop his own script after seeing glimpses of promise in his other work.

What follows, as mentioned, doesn’t exactly break new ground in regards to complexity, but with some fantastic, nuanced character work (Desmond has become, deservedly, a true icon of musical theatre) and Lloyd-Webber’s stunning, full-realised score, it makes for a sumptuous and suitably decadent theatregoing experience that would likely impress DeMille himself.

What’s perhaps bravest and most impressive about this production is how masterfully realised it is as its own separate entity from the acclaimed London Coliseum outing of 2016 that it no doubt gestated from (the overwhelmingly positive response to Jones’ understudy turn for Glenn Close during a period of illness was undoubtedly a pivotal and formative step in this tour becoming a reality). Whilst said production was glorious in and of itself, this tour is by no means a watered down or facsimile reproduction. Colin Richmond’s set design is an organic, interlocking wonder, complimented beautifully by Douglas O’Connell’s inventive and atmospheric video and projection work. It’s a terrifically moody and evocative harmony of stage design - the feel of the era perfectly evoked, and caped in an aura of ominous dread and suitably baroque indulgence for Desmond’s personal quarters.

Likewise, the cast are equally impressive. Jones’ turn stepping in for Glenn Close was deservedly applauded in London, and she channels the iconic Gloria Swanson from the 1950 Billy Wilder classic uncannily so. Jones also brings a little more humanity and light when compared with the more immediately unhinged interpretation by Close, and whilst it lacks some of that performance’s scenery-chewing eccentricity, it is a confident, bravura re-interpretation that again should be given tremendous credit, particularly for not resorting to base mimicry.

Molly Lynch is delightful and endearing as the young Betty Schaefer, a light and youthful foil to Desmond’s burgeoning insanity, whilst Adam Pearce is a dignified presence and in exquisite voice as Norma’s dutiful butler Max. 

Perhaps the show’s biggest surprise, however, is former Hollyoaks star Danny Mac as Joe. Witness the birth of musical theatre’s newest leading man as Mac gives a fantastic, note-perfect turn as the ambitious yet misguided Gillis. It’s a baptism by fire, to be sure - Sunset’s protagonist gets several demanding sings and is rarely off the stage; Mac acquits himself beautifully in the role and posits himself as a real talent to watch on the musical theatre scene. It doesn’t hurt that he’s exceptionally easy on the eye, either, making Desmond’s infatuation all the more empathetic.

A fantastic company - and it’s worth mentioning again that orchestra! (under superlative direction by MD Adrian Kirk) - round out an opulent, extravagant delight of a show. It may not be one of Lloyd-Webber’s most widely known of pieces, but with easily one of his most sweeping, sumptuous scores, it is certainly one of his richest. This new touring production captures the essence of the golden age of Hollywood and its leading lady - the madness, the chemistry and the unshakeable appeal. Sunset may not be for everyone (you’re in heavy, full-on musical territory, here) but for those who recognise its excellence and appeal, this is as confident, charismatic and commanding a technicolor marvel as you could wish for, beautifully realised in one of the most decadent touring productions 2017 has offered.

Norma is ready for her close-up Mr DeMille, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.

RATING - ★★★★

Tickets: 0844 338 5000​  / Official Website: click​​