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Sunset Boulevard | Savoy Theatre

Lights, camera, action! In 1993, the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Sunset Boulevard (based on the Billy Wilder’s 1950 film) made its West End debut. Thirty years later, this iconic production has returned triumphantly to the Savoy Theatre, featuring the incomparable Nicole Scherzinger as the enigmatic Norma Desmond. Sunset Boulevard tells the tale of Norma Desmond, a faded silent film star trapped in the past, and Joe Gillis, a struggling screenwriter who becomes entangled in her world of delusion and obsession. 

Let’s be honest - not all of Lloyd Webber's works have resonated equally over the years, but this latest version, directed by Jamie Lloyd, lives up to the hype  - it is truly revolutionary and a remarkable work of art. Seamlessly combining meticulously choreographed camera sequences (designed by Nathan Amzi and Joe Ransom) and live theatre, this production is beautifully haunting, sexy, and bold. It captures the essence of the original 1950’s film noir aesthetics while offering a refreshing take and pushing the creative boundaries of live theatre.

Given the anticipation leading to its premiere, it is not surprising that the spotlight belongs to Scherzinger. Like many others, I was initially sceptical about the casting choice. However, by her first number, I was won over by both her acting and singing. The harsh video close-ups on Scherzinger gives her nowhere to hide, but her portrayal of Norma is flawless - a compelling mix of madness, desperation, and unfulfilled longing, holding the audience in rapt attention from start to end. 

Scherzinger's extensive background in musical theatre is apparent as she effortlessly hits every note with precision and delivers impressive dance routines, all while cheekily engaging with the cameras. In particular, her renditions of ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ are absolutely divine. Norma Desmond might have lost her fans, but Nicole Scherzinger certainly hasn't. The audience's resounding response, marked by prolonged applause and numerous mid-performance standing ovations, speaks volumes about Scherzinger's magnetic presence, current appeal and extraordinary talent.

Although Scherzinger’s star power naturally takes centre stage, it's equally important to recognise the exceptional supporting cast, who deliver stellar performances. Sharing the spotlight is Tom Francis, who deserves special mention for his portrayal of Joe Gillis, which is both nuanced and captivating. He is outstanding! Through moments of vulnerability and strength, Francis' Gillis emerges as a character we can genuinely empathise with, reflecting the universal human desires for success, love, and redemption. Grace Hodgett Young, in the role of Betty Schaefer, brings a youthful energy to the love triangle, and each note she sings exudes a sense of yearning and is extremely moving. Finally, David Thaxton's portrayal of the faithful manservant Max von Mayerling is bittersweet and anguished, adding another layer to the complex web of emotions.

The orchestra, under the direction of musical director and supervisor Alan Williams, provides a gorgeous and romantic underscore that lifts the performance, conveying Desmond’s mix of fantasies, hope and nostalgia. I have not heard a score as glorious and lush as this in a theatre in a long time. The minimalist stage design by Soutra Gilmour transforms into a blank canvas for Lighting Designer Jack Knowles, whose design offers an ethereal feel. Fabian Aloise's choreography is precise and inventive, seamlessly enhancing the narrative without becoming a distraction.

What truly distinguishes this production is its bold choice to break the fourth wall and incorporate self-referential elements. The occasional winks and nods to the audience through the cameras, along with clever meta-theatrical moments, brings an intrigue and playfulness into an already captivating production. The seamless blending of backstage and onstage, live and mediated elements further creates a visual feast and unique theatrical experience that is both breath-taking and thrilling.

This version may not be for everyone, but it certainly left my jaw on the floor by the end of the show. With the recent saga surrounding the Hollywood writers’ strike, the show's themes and messages take on added weight - the struggles and demands on stage will resonate more deeply with audiences who are witnessing a real-life battle for fair compensation in the creative industries. Sunset Boulevard will undoubtedly continue to spark conversations long after the curtain falls, and in an era of classical musical revivals, this reimagination is a breath of fresh air and most welcome. This show is truly revolutionary and well-deserving of its "close-up"! I can't help but sense an Olivier Award (or a few!) on the horizon.

Sunset Boulevard  plays at the Savoy Theatre till 6 Jan 2024. You can book your tickets here.



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