Sunset Boulevard is a whirlwind of a musical about ambition, dreams, and human fragility. The story focuses on two characters, one who is based in fantasy and one who is based in reality and what happens as their worlds collide. Joe (Ramin Karimloo), a writer in desperate circumstances fortuitously meets Norma (Mazz Murray), a middle-aged actress longing for her glory days. The plot lulls the audience into a false sense of security, as it is easy to buy into the “struggling writer who finds a new muse” and “has-been who reclaims her fame” cliché. Both actors bring a truth and freshness to their roles, handling their characters with delicacy and are thus magnetising.
Karimloo is the first to appear on stage, transporting us to Joe’s feeble life as a writer in Los Angeles. He imbues Joe with a worldliness and a dreamy quality whilst also portraying a sharp edge that he must have developed to succeed in cut-throat Hollywood. Telling the story with emotional precision and gliding along through scenes, Karimloo is truly mesmerising.
Zizi Strallen plays Joe’s love interest, Betty who is an enthusiastic writer new to the industry. She provides an uplifting aspect to the show and beautifully portrays her warmth and love for Joe.
Murray is magnificent as Norma, mastering her intensity and natural comedic flare. Throughout the show, Norma teeters on the edge between being salvageable and entering complete mental disarray. Murray impressively conveys this fine balance with subtlety, juggling Norma’s aloof façade with her moments of fragility in her desperate yearning. She portrays her psychological complexities whilst also showing her endearing and wondrous side. You can feel Norma’s pain and depth of emotion through the raw power of her voice and through her moments of stillness that are saturated with meaning.
The dynamic between the two is excellent, Karimloo and Murray have a natural chemistry which heightens the clash between Joe’s pragmatism and Norma’s nostalgia.
Max, Norma’s Butler is played by Jeremy Secomb. At first, I assumed Max was the comically sombre servant, but I gradually became aware of the subtle, heavy undercurrent that his character had. Secomb skilfully embodies Max’ psychological burden and sense of responsibility. The oddness and eeriness of Norma and Max’ world is palpable, even without elaborate staging. This is created by Joe’s visceral unease and Norma and Max’ strange air of serenity.
The 40-piece orchestra conducted by Alex Parker was spine-tingling and enunciated the emotions within the performance, from the bittersweet melancholy of “New Ways to Dream” to the livelier numbers such as “Every Movie’s a Circus”. There were exceptional musical and theatrical performances from the whole cast.
Having minimal staging and a lack of background scenery makes you totally reliant on the actors for clues about the characters’ worlds which they all did brilliantly. However, the lighting was dazzling and remarkably effective when used to highlight Norma. I particularly liked the changing moods of the ensemble which was very powerful in creating a given atmosphere from the superficial, bustling excitement of the film industry to the sombre, curious journalists at the end of the show. The choreography was exquisite from the clean, sharp dance moves to the visually stunning synchronised ensemble pieces as the cast moved seamlessly between scenes.
Sunset Boulevard was a delight to watch. Whilst this performance was a one-off concert production for the Royal Albert Hall’s 150th anniversary celebration, if there is a chance to see this cast again make sure you get tickets.
Reviewer: Riana Howarth
Reviewed: 3rd December 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★★