Musical review: Sunset Boulevard, Princess Theatre

A woefully miscast Sarah Brightman derails this production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, which also features some baffling directorial choices.
A dramatically lit photograph of the cast members from the 2024 Australian production of 'Sunset Boulevard', shown in the decaying Hollywood mansion of faded star Norma Desmond.

Opera Australia is in its British mega-musical era. After producing seasons of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon in recent years, now along comes Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard

Based on Billy Wilder’s classic film noir, this musical adaptation is a star vehicle for any performer who takes on the central role of Norma Desmond. It’s a notoriously challenging part, thanks to Lloyd Webber’s demanding score and the fractured psychology of the main character. In the 30 years since the London premiere, many musical theatre legends have left their indelible mark on the role, including Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley and Glenn Close, achieving acclaim and accolades for their performances.

In a supposed casting coup, the producers have imported music theatre legend Sarah Brightman to star in this Australian revival. Brightman was once Lloyd Webber’s musical muse (and wife) and originated the role of Christine in Phantom, but she has not performed in a musical for decades. Known primarily as a platinum-selling recording artist, Brightman has come out of musical theatre retirement to lead this new production. The casting of Brightman is an odd choice; she is known for her delicate soprano, rather than the powerful mezzo/belt voice required for the role and is certainly not known for her acting prowess.

When this casting was announced I was intrigued, but mostly concerned and unfortunately my concerns were painfully validated on opening night. This is quite simply one of the greatest examples of a performer being miscast that I have experienced, and the blame must lie with the producers.

I’m completely open to new interpretations of classic roles, and Brightman cannot be faulted for her ambition, but watching this dire performance it’s clear she does not possess the skills to play Norma. The songs have been unsuccessfully transposed to suit her soprano and this greatly reduces the impact of such classics as ‘With One Look’ and ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’. Worse still, Brightman’s voice has little power or clarity, leading to most of the lyrics becoming garbled and unintelligible.

Whenever Brightman starts singing it stops the show, but in the worst possible way. The tempo of the songs is excruciatingly slow and there is a severe disconnect between her performance of the scenes and songs; the transition from speaking to singing is clunky and she performs the songs as if on the concert stage with little to no characterisation and a static physicality. This is one of the most bizarre performances I have seen, but I feel for Brightman, as she should never have been put in this position in the first place.

Now, onto the positives. This Sunset looks amazing; the set design by Morgan Large is spectacular, particularly Norma’s cavernous, decaying mansion. Utilising a monochrome colour palette reminiscent of silent film, the mansion moves fluidly across the stage, creating a sense of cinematic motion and at times even recalling the focus pull of a camera as it moves downstage like an apparition. Dark lace curtains add a gothic atmosphere and George Reeve’s projections create a potent sense of location and atmosphere. In conjunction with Mark Henderson’s impeccable lighting design – some of the best I’ve seen – this production looks decadent and dazzling.

As expected in an Opera Australia production, the orchestra sounds great, executing one of Webber’s greatest scores to perfection. I would have appreciated the volume of the orchestra being increased in the sound design, but this is a minor quibble.

As ill-fated struggling screenwriter Joe Gillis, we have Tim Draxl. He does a huge amount of heavy lifting in this show and Draxl is more than up to the task. He has a great voice, but it’s his acting that elevates this performance. Draxl has a steady grasp of his character, and every choice is expertly executed; he has a real presence on stage, and audiences sympathise with Joe’s deadly predicament. I hope we see more leading musical roles for Draxl in the future – he’s got the goods.

Read: Musical review: Ride the Cyclone, Hayes Theatre

Rounding out the supporting cast are Robert Grubb as Norma’s surly butler Max, Ashleigh Rubenach as aspiring screenwriter Betty Schaefer and Jarrod Draper as her fiancé/Joe’s best mate Artie Green. Grubb appeared in the original 1996 Australian production starring Debra Byrne and Hugh Jackman, so this is somewhat of a homecoming for the experienced stage actor. Audiences get to hear the versatility of his singing voice in this role and his portrayal of Max’s unwavering dedication to Norma is touching. Rubenach does the best she can with her underwritten role, bringing a lovely energy and warm presence to her scenes and Draper delivers a relaxed vibe and strong vocals as Artie.

Paul Warwick Griffin has directed this revival and while he hits the required beats, there are some strange directorial choices. This Sunset is choreographed within an inch of its life, with the ensemble constantly in motion, particularly during the scenes at Paramount Studios. Ashley Wallen’s twitchy choreography works well in the opening number, but the repeated stylised movements become distracting during book scenes.

At the end of act one, Joe flees Norma’s clutches to join Artie at his New Year’s party. However, in this production there is no set change, and the party guests seem to invade the mansion. It’s unclear what this blending of scenes is trying to achieve, leaving the audience confused. Stranger still, Griffin has Norma and Max inexplicably appear in the middle of the ensemble number, going about their business as the rest of the cast sing and dance around them.

The success of any production of Sunset Boulevard relies heavily on the central performance of its leading lady, so when that element is as disastrously miscalculated as it is here, the rest of the show unravels and suffers as a consequence. Australian performer Silvie Paladino plays the role of Norma at several scheduled performances throughout the run, so if you’re a fan of the material you may want to enquire when she is appearing and book a ticket to experience the real deal.

Sunset Boulevard
Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment
Book and Lyrics: Don Black and Christopher Hampton
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber

Based on the Billy Wilder film
Director: Paul Warwick Griffin
Set and Costume Designer: Morgan Large
Choreographer: Ashley Wallen
Musical Supervisor: Kristen Blodgette
Lighting Designer: Mark Henderson
Projection Designer: George Reeve
Sound Designer: David Greasley

Cast includes: Sarah Brightman, Tim Draxl, Silvie Paladino (alternating with Brightman), Robert Grubb, Ashleigh Rubenach, Jarrod Draper

Sunset Boulevard is playing in Melbourne until 11 August 2024 before touring to Sydney Opera House from 28 August 2024.

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.