If 2020 has proved anything, it's how resilient theatre and all the creatives who bring us the magic are. Facing setback after setback, they never accept defeat no matter how bleak the situation may seem. Curve Leicester are a prime example of this resilience. After government guidelines meant they were unable to stage their planned productions, they came up with a new series of social distanced concert style shows including a revival of Sunset Boulevard. And then new government guidelines shot those plans dead. The motto for the year is "The Show Must Go On" and on it went - still in the theatre as planned but this time without a live audience. Strangely, these horrific turn of events actually worked in its favour as Curve Leicester have unexpectedly created a total masterpiece.
Originally a movie in 1950, it was turned into a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black hitting the West End stage in 1993. Among the legends who have played the iconic role of Norma Desmond are Glenn Close, Elaine Paige and Patti LuPone. Those who have read my past articles know I have a love/hate relationship with Andrew Lloyd Webber shows. I cite Sunset Boulevard as my favourite show of his... by a mile. This stems from the first time I saw the incredible production at the Coliseum in 2016 and openly wept at how incredible the show was as well as the unforgettable performance I witnessed from Glenn Close that night. With that in mind, I was unsure how this filmed production could live up to those legendary memories in my mind. I needn't have worried.
Norma Desmond is a difficult role to play. The story of a faded star from the silent movie days who refuses to accept her fate, she transitions from vulnerability to sheer egotistical madness in a heartbeat. Her ultimate descent into madness can provoke laughter from the audience if not handled with care. Luckily we have seasoned pro Ria Jones on hand to play the role flawlessly. No stranger to the world of Norma, Ria actually originated the role at the 1991 Sydmonton Festival before understudying it in the West End and touring the UK with it in 2017. Given the lack of time the cast were able to rehearse together, having someone with such an affinity to the role was a master stroke. It is hard to imagine anybody playing it better.
With one look, Ria Jones will tell you everything you need to know about the character. Playing to an audience is one thing but filming it to stream brings a whole new depth to Norma Desmond. Blurring the lines between Norma's real forgotten stardom to times where she believes she is acting in front of a camera, having an actual camera in front of her channels this perfectly. When Ria stares directly into it, it feels like she is staring into your very soul.
The main cast members are all familiar with the show having all toured the show in 2017. Danny Mac brings charisma and swagger to play the conflicted Joe Gillis, more than holding his own alongside such a formidable partner. Molly Lynch is no stranger to filmed productions having just been in the incredible The Last Five Years. Here she again proves what an incredible performer she is as Betty Schaefer, and Adam Pearce is truly sensational reprising his role as Norma's servant Max, who we later uncover has a lot more depth to the character. The four main characters all bring everything to the roles and leave everything on the stage. You sense the desperation of all of them in their own ways - the events of this year must have helped them dig deeper into these characters as they are all on another level from when I saw them perform in the tour just 3 years ago. Credit must go to the entire cast who are truly flawless in their roles.
Social distancing rules mean there have to be some changes to the show. Don't expect any kissing on stage for one thing. While that can lead to the danger of losing any sense of intimacy within the production, the cast make up for this with their charisma and clever staging negates this so it doesn't enter your head for more than a brief moment.
Sunset Boulevard has my favourite music of any Andrew Lloyd Webber show. Songs like 'With One Look', 'The Perfect Year', 'Every Movie's A Circus' and the title track 'Sunset Boulevard' are all phenomenal in their own right but we must talk about 'As If We Never Said Goodbye'. My favourite Andrew Lloyd Webber song bar none, this song truly hits different given what we have all lived through over the past 9 months. When Norma sings "This world's waited long enough, I've come home at last" it takes on a whole different meaning, especially with camera shots showing her playing to a completely empty auditorium. Heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, I remember the seemingly never-ending standing ovation when Glenn Close performed it at the Coliseum. If I could, I would have given an even longer one for this performance. Truly one of the single greatest things I have witnessed this year. With an incredible orchestra bringing all of these classic songs to life, you really feel like you are there with them - and God, I wish I was.
So let's talk about the production value of this. Bearing in mind this was never meant to be filmed and streamed and they only had a short time to turn it around, what they have achieved is beyond remarkable. Directed by Nikolai Foster, it pushes creativity to its very limits with new and unexpected ways to stage the show. Utilising every inch of the beautiful Curve Leicester, the action isn't restricted to the stage alone. Instead, the action takes place in the stalls, the circle and back of house areas. You expect a sense of grandeur from Norma Desmond and watching her initial descent down the stairs in the circle achieves just that.
The production also has utilised the editing process to insert a host of videos and images interspersed throughout the production. This allows them to show transitions such as Joe driving from the studio to Sunset Boulevard with clever effect, with footage from the movie and even a bit of the script being shown touches of genius. With the soaring orchestra playing during these sequences, it really creates a sense of magic on the screen.
Literally every element of this production is faultless. Stunning costuming, lighting, sound - all excellent. What sets this apart from other streams we've all watched through the year is how the creative team have thrived in pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved in a musical theatre stream, quite literally teaching the world new ways to dream. A Hollywood production of the musical has been in the works for a while now and, if rumours are to be believed, might be ready to film next year. Why not save a few hundred million dollars and give this a mainstream release as I can't see anything topping it. A filmed production of this musical has been long overdue and this is worthy of the wait. Now we just need an official release so we can all watch it over and over again.
I am not exaggerating when I say this is by far the best streamed show of the year completely changing the limits of what is possible from a virtual production. While there have been some absolutely incredible shows this year, this easily tops them. It would have been a five star show through the cast alone if it was solely a concert. Add in incredible and inventive staging, brilliant use of space and an unbeatable production value beautifully shot - what they have created here is nothing short of miraculous. It may just be the perfect stream.
Sunset Boulevard is available to stream at https://www.curveonline.co.uk/ until January 9th 2021.