Life, etc

Theatre review: Dazzling Sunset, mediocre midday

By Lesley Stones 4 September 2013

The second half of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard is a powerful affair. Full of moving songs, torn emotions and tragic consequences, it is set against a magnificent stage that captures the glory of a Hollywood mansion beautifully. Pity one has to sit through the first half. By LESLEY STONES.

Two of South Africa’s best performers, Angela Kilian and Jonathan Roxmouth, dominate the theatre and once again prove how brilliant they are, belting out songs or showing their deepest emotions through a trembling quiver, a contemptuous glance.

As the story of a faded Hollywood star draws to a close, the audience is ready to rise to its feet and deliver thunderous applause.

Which would make for a great evening out, if only you didn’t have to sit through the first act to get there.

Sunset Boulevard really is game of two halves, and the first is dreary to the point of tediousness. Some people didn’t even bother returning for the second act, which is a pity, because they missed a show that blew the first half into oblivion.

Sunset Boulevard is about the conniving and down-on-his-luck scriptwriter Joe Gillis, played superbly by Roxmouth. Joe is fleeing from a couple of gangsters when he takes refuge in the mansion of Norma Desmond, a silent movie star pushed into obsolescence by the advent of the talkies.

Joe grabs the opportunity to initially work for and then make love to Norma in return for a luxurious lifestyle. But material comfort cannot compensate for mental discomfort, and Joe is soon sneaking away to enjoy the youth and vibrancy of people in the real world, not his gilded prison.

Kilian is absolutely fabulous as the faded movie star, living in her fantasy world where the cameras still adore her and everyone does her bidding. She’s magnificent singing ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’, imagining herself back in the limelight, and equally moving when she’s trembling and pleading with her young lover not to abandon her. Kilian has her star swing from coquettish to supercilious, but always with the vulnerable aura peaking out beneath.

The pair is surrounded by other strong performers, particularly Bethany Dixon as Betty, the woman who wins Joe’s heart. A duet between Dixon and Roxmouth is one of the highlights of the show.

The choreography by David Gouldie is bright and breezy and the set by Denis Hutchinson is a star in its own right, with sweeping steps, a balcony and a giant screen to one side that reflects the languid pool or shows 1940s cars puttering along in Hollywood. Hutchinson designed the lighting too and that’s also perfect, as befitting a musical based in Hollywood.

The music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black deliver several big numbers that work extremely well.

The problem for me is that the music never stops. In the first half in particular all the dialogue is conducted to music, in that frenetic sing-song way that makes you concentrate hard to hear every sentence against a sometimes overloud band.