Travels With JB

Travels With JB

Travel news and reviews

Reading reviews of shows before seeing them can be fraught with danger. The latest production of Sunset Boulevard is the perfect example.

From left: Robert Grubb (Max Von Mayerling), Sarah Brightman (Norma Desmond) and Tim Draxl (Joe Gillis) star in Sunset Boulevard.*

It’s fair to say opening night reviews of Sarah Brightman’s performance in the production, currently playing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre, were mixed.

And so it was with some interest we attended the show a few days after its official opening.

It may be because neither myself nor my companion had any expectations on how the role should be performed or possibly some issues had been ironed out since opening night, but we didn’t identify the problems those critical of her performance highlighted.

Sarah Brightman as Norma Desmond.*

Brightman was totally believable as a sad, lonely, desperate, insecure and unstable faded silent movie star. And both her spoken and sung words were understandable.

At the same time, we wholeheartedly  agreed with the critical praise given to the performances of the other cast members, the orchestra and the staging of this new production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

Based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film, Sunset Boulevard tells of the relationship between Norma Desmond (Brightman) and Joe Gillis (Tim Draxl).

Tim Draxl (Joe Gillis).*

Joe’s career is not going well: he’s broke and on the verge of having his car repossessed.  He tries to persuade Paramount Pictures producer Sheldrake (Troy Sussman) to buy his most recent script, but fails after script reader Betty Schaefer (Ashleigh Rubenach) gives Sheldrake a harsh critique of the work.

Fleeing from repossession men in his car, Joe finds himself in the garage of a large and seemingly deserted mansion on Sunset Boulevard. Here he comes in contact with butler Max Von Mayerling (Robert Grubb) and his employer Desmond.

Initially Desmond mistakes Joe for the undertaker for her recently deceased pet chimpanzee.

Sarah Brightman (Norma Desmond).*

When she learns that he is a writer, she invites him in and asks for his opinion on an immense script she has written for a film about Salome. She hopes the film, in which she plans to star, will revive her faded acting career.

Although Joe finds the script awful, he agrees to work with her. After he moves into her mansion she becomes reliant on him and in return lavishes him with gifts and a wardrobe make-over. Gradually he becomes a ‘kept man’.

Things change when he discovers Desmond is in love with him. A visit to a New Year’s Eve party staged by friend Artie Green (Jarrod Draper) sees Joe reunited with Betty with eventual tragic consequences.

Ashleigh Rubenach (Betty Schaefer) and Tim Draxl (Joe Gillis).*

Draxl gives a brilliant performance as Joe with his acting and singing equally impressive. The same could be said of Rubenach.  There’s real on-stage chemistry between the two. Grubb is believable as Desmond’s devoted butler in a role that also provides him with the opportunity to show his vocal skills.

The leads are well supported by supporting actors and a hard-working ensemble who are called upon to present a number of expertly choreographed and colourful songs.

Sunset Boulevard cast members.*

Contrasting with the bright and colourful movement of the actors on sets representing such locations as Paramount Pictures, a drug store and Artie’s New Year’s Eve party is the doom and gloom of Desmond’s Sunset Boulevard decaying mansion.

Visually spectacular, the gothic style mansion together with the use of dark lace curtains add to the dark foreboding vibe which surrounds Desmond.

Another highlight is the work of the 16-piece orchestra which expertly brings to life the show’s 18 musical numbers.

Sunset Boulevard cast members.*

The music, sets, costuming, choreography and the skill of the cast ensure Sunset Boulevard offers a thoroughly entertaining and enjoyable theatrical experience. Whether Brightman (who is replaced by Silvie Paladino in Tuesday evening and Wednesday matinee performances) adds to that experience would seem to be very much subjective.

Sunset Boulevard is playing at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until August 11. It opens at the Sydney Opera House on August 28. Visit the Sunset Boulevard website for more information and tickets.

Jenny Burns attended a performance of Sunset Boulevard as a guest of the producers.

*Photo credit: Daniel Boud.

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