The National Theatre is the perfect venue in which to stage Sunset Boulevard. Notions of the grand opulence and dusty smell of Norma’s mansion were reflected in the auditorium and the scene was well and truly set for a momentous staging of the Andrew Lloyd Webber classic. Every technical aspect, every detail was well executed and lovingly attended to by a seasoned group of experienced theatre practitioners and as a result, CLOC’s Sunset Boulevard was spectacular. Epic in fact.
Sunset Boulevard is a dramatic and compelling story, underpinned by intense characters in complex, manipulative relationships. CLOC’s production had all the visual hallmarks of a professional production, evidenced by a keen attention to detail and authenticity. Unfortunately that same authenticity was not replicated in the interplay of the onstage relationships. For example, the intimacy between Joe and Betty in “Too Much In Love To Care” never really had an opportunity to develop, due to some static blocking, which kept them separated for most of the number. Their quickly formed attachment seemed to come out of nowhere as there was no suggestion of flirtation, chemistry or anything other than a pleasant working relationship prior. Similarly, the relationship between Joe and Norma barely broke out of a canter and lacked intensity throughout. Each character seemed too controlled. Nobody got too upset and the understated interpretations began to affect the energy and pace.
Mark Doran as Joe was dependable, consistent and engaging, yet his portrayal was a little underplayed. He successfully brought out Joe’s dry side, however I was left wanting when it came to exploring the depth of the character. The charismatic qualities I hoped to see never materialized. This became more apparent as the show progressed and was best highlighted in the number “Sunset Boulevard”, which while vocally faultless, fell short of the mark when it came to effective storytelling. Having Joe sing the dramatic song in his swimming trunks didn’t aid the cause. Doran’s physical attributes were ideally suited to the role and this, combined with his warm tone and seemingly effortless vocal ability, made him enjoyable to watch.
Maureen Andrew delivered a considered, measured and overall professional performance. She possessed the perfect vocal and physical characteristics for the role and was perfectly cast. However, she just wasn’t crazy enough. The temper tantrums, the hissy fits and the exploding vitriol just didn’t have enough explosive power, enough bite. Elements that should have defined her character, like the underhanded manipulative side of her relationship with Joe for example, seemed somewhat diluted and unintentional. Andrew’s accent was also inconsistent, her dramatic moments often broken with glaring lapses into Australian drawl.
Alexandra Clover’s portrayal of Betty Schaefer was pleasing. Her understanding of the character and overall stagecraft was excellent and coupled with fresh faced good looks and bright vocals, she delivered a solid performance. Phillip Lambert as Max looked the part, however his facial expressions didn’t always match the sentiment of the dialogue, or the character. He also struggled with pitch, especially in his upper register.
The ensemble and bit roles were well performed with an enjoyable combination of variety and confidence. The ensemble successfully injected much needed energy and pace and lifted the whole show every time they appeared. Particular mention must be made of Ken Jones for his portrayal of Cecil B. Demille and Scott Hili for his interpretation of Mr Manfred. Each actor delivered standout performances. Occasional upstaging by the ensemble was apparent, but not frequent enough to cause concern and the brief moments when they did pull focus actually added an unexpected sense of realism to the piece.
The sets, designed by Brenton Staples, were a visual feast, sumptuous in their proportion and were practically dripping with ornate beauty. The magnificent living room with grand staircase, synonymous with Sunset, loomed imposingly, gliding gracefully in and out, creating another beautifully dramatic dimension to the show. The bit pieces; the pool, the palms, the Paramount gate, Hollywood back lots and the like were well executed, however there was no sign of Norma’s car and I was disappointed that team didn’t meet the challenge of the Artie’s house / Norma’s living room split level effect - an effect which we’ve come to expect as one of the “wow” moments in Sunset, similar to the helicopter in Miss Saigon, the turning barricade in Les Miserables or the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera. However, it was only a small stain on an otherwise perfect landscape of 1940’s splendor.
Costumes by Nerissa Saville were thought through and executed well. From Norma’s myriad of glamorous garments to the perfectly tailored men’s suits, there was no element overlooked and no detail too small to cater to. I would have liked Joe’s second act costume to differ a little more from his first act outfit and I think the ensemble pieces could have dipped into a richer color palette, however overall, the collection worked well and there was a clear consistency of ideas across the stage.
Musical Direction by Andrew McCalman was excellent, however his efforts were hampered by sound issues throughout. The balance between Norma and the orchestra in “As If We Never Said Goodbye” was an issue. The frenetic and often jarring nature of the score, particularly in numbers like “Let’s Have Lunch” were a challenge to follow, made all the more difficult by some inconsistent diction.
Director Chris Bradtke’s overall vision translated well, as each element – sets, lighting, costumes and so on were all perfectly matched in style and consistency. Bradtke’s occasional use of multimedia tied in beautifully with the Hollywood backdrop, adding an interesting and appropriate layer to the show. Transitions from one scene to another moved gracefully and cleverly, proving yet again that he’s in his element with large scale productions. While the technical aspects of Bradtke’s vision were executed incredibly well, unfortunately the story was not delivered to the same standard. Characters frequently moved without a sense of purpose and as such, the flow of movement occasionally seemed forced and somewhat contrived. He clearly casts well, however he was unable to bring out the required levels of passion and intensity from the leading players. As such, the pace languished from time to time. That said, Bradtke produced a polished production that will stand the test of time as one of the enduring pieces in CLOC’s impressive showcase.