Sunset Boulevard – Theatre Review

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s been 28 years since Sunset Boulevard graced the Australian stage. Now in 2024, Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment, by arrangement with The Really Useful Group present a new production of Sunset Boulevard, bringing the world of old Hollywood to the Princess Theatre stage and unearthing a music theatre legend from retirement to our shores.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black, and direction by Paul Warwick Griffin, the 2024 production of Sunset Boulevard is visually impressive. The show consists of stunning set design by Morgan Large, exquisitely gorgeous and often gliding to centre stage. The flashy projection designed by George Reeve makes you feel like you’re watching old black and white movies. Not to be outdone, the impressive lighting design by Mark Henderson that at one point creates the illusion of a swimming pool is brilliant.

Whether we’re at Norma Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard location or at the old film studios of Paramount Pictures, audiences are thrust into the hopeless dreams of our main characters.

Tim Draxl passionately plays the restless and struggling script writer, Joe Gillis. In financial strife, Joe finds himself at the mercy of the undisputed queen of the silent pictures, Norma Desmond. Both characters are very silly and not at all likeable, but Sunset Boulevard is by no means a feel good musical. There are plenty of discussion worthy themes here such as mental health, self-harm, suicide, the fickleness of fame, to gender-based discrimination and the exacerbated inequalities of age.

While I’m aware Sarah Brightman is a theatre legend: a beloved English operatic soprano who originated the role of Christine Daae in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, I confess I was both curious and surprised when she was announced to play Norma Desmond here in Australia.

Fine, I’ll cut straight to the chase. I’m sure you’re wondering, ‘Can she still sing?’. The answer is undoubtedly, ‘Yes’, but it is not on any level of the same gravitas that I recall listening to from original the Phantom of the Opera cast recordings, and recording studios are much kinder than a live stage.

For the record, I thoroughly enjoy the opera. An operatic voice is not what the issue is here. While Brightman does a decent job of acting out the role of the crazed screen star of yesteryear and well and truly looks the part, I often could not understand what she was singing. It was hit or miss and some moments were better than others. Although I appreciated Brightman’s performance of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, I believe I did so because I already knew the lyrics.

Perhaps there may have been some intentional directional choices to have operatic vocals be a representation of the Hollywood gone by, but if that were the case, the intention was poorly executed as Robert Grubb’s Max Von Mayerling would have needed to have an operatic voice too.

The ensemble cast are also great and I cannot fault the choreography. Grubb does a wonderful job as Max Von Mayerling, always watchful in the background of the story but never actually fading into the background due to his powerful portrayal. Ashleigh Rubenach is lovely as Betty Schaefer, the fiancé of Joe’s best friend, Jarrod Draper’s Artie Green. Draper is great and takes full advantage of shining with the limited amount of stage time that he has. However, it is Tim Draxl as Joe Gillis that is a true asset to this production.

I loved Tim Draxl as the aloof and directionless writer. I’m certain many could relate to Joe’s financial troubles. His chemistry with Rubenach is fast and convincing, and Draxl does a lot of the heavy lifting when it came to chemistry opposite Brightman. I also daresay, his rendition of the title song ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is worth admission alone.

If there’s a take away from this musical, it’s the scene where Brightman’s Norma revisits a Hollywood film studio for the first time in years. She ends up being in a friendly discussion with a male former colleague film director who is much older than her but all while this is happening in the foreground, in the background young starlets are on display more for their looks than for anything else. Here he still has a place in Hollywood and yet Norma does not. In a surprise to no-one, not much has changed. We still don’t have nearly enough female directors getting recognition in the film industry and equal pay seems to be a pipe dream.

When you look closely at Sunset Boulevard, the show has a lot to say. With many influencers now and the normality of social media, it’s not a difficult tale to understand Norma Desmond’s struggles of longing to live again in the spotlight. The toxicity of fame and attention is all too familiar and more relevant than ever. Female inequality, well, we’re still fighting the good fight like many of our predecessors. As for mental health, we have an understanding of it now, although it could be better. But it’s impossible to focus on these important topics and appreciate them, or even take in the gripping dramatic story that Sunset Boulevard contains when you’re far too busy frustratingly trying to understand what is being sung on stage.

Sunset Boulevard is in Melbourne playing at the Princess Theatre until August 11th 2024 before it heads to Sydney in on August 28.
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Photography by Grant Alexander.

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