Sunset Boulevard star dims performance

On paper it’s the perfect casting decision, soprano star Sarah Brightman returning to musical theatre for the first time in more than three decades to play Norma Desmond. An actress attempting a similar comeback in Hollywood.

There has been quite the hype surrounding Brightman’s return to the stage after she left the profession to take up a solo career in the early 1990s.

Once Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wife, the performer originated the role of Christine Daaé in The Phantom of the Opera on both the West End and Broadway stages. She recently told Broadway World the composer wrote much of Sunset Boulevard on her voice.

But Brightman falls flat in this production, perhaps due to that 30-year hiatus between her theatre performances. It seems it’s her international profile that leads to a roaring applause rather than her theatrical talent.

The most jarring element of her performance is without doubt the lack of chemistry with co-star Tim Draxl in the role of Joe Gillis. 

It feels forced, unnatural and is disappointing next to an impressive performance from Draxl, who was most recently seen in SBS series Erotic Stories and on stage in Jagged Little Pill.

He commands the stage and has the audience in awe at the top of Act 2 with his rendition of ‘Sunset Boulevard.’ 

PHOTO: Daniel Boud

He brings to life Joe Gillis’ loss of identity and moral compass while exploring themes of ambition, greed, and the dark side of Hollywood’s glamor which ultimately leads to his demise.

Draxl shines on another level alongside Ashleigh Rubenach, described as an emerging leading lady and rightly so, who plays Betty Schaefer. A character with stark contrasts to the fading glamour of Norma Desmond.

I suspect we will be seeing more of Rubenach in the years to come as she continues to climb the ladder of the Australian industry.

The impressiveness of the supporting cast continues with stage and screen veteran

Robert Grubb as Max Von Mayerling. His performance is rock solid. Jarrod Draper, Paul Hanlon and Troy Sussman are all class acts too.

The ensemble is good, however, they weren’t seamless on opening night. Their comedic timing shines in ‘The Lady’s Paying’ but their performance wasn’t hitting the nail on the head as often as it should have. I suspect this will improve as the season continues.

PHOTO: Daniel Boud

There are two elements of Sunset Boulevard that blew me away – the incredible orchestra and breathtaking set design. Two reasons to motivate you to book some tickets and see this production.

Even when you couldn’t make out the operatic lyrics Brightman is singing, the talent of the musicians as they bring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music to life is beautiful nonetheless.

I was just as impressed by the enormous mansion set piece which is home to a majority of the production. It’s not only larger than life, but rotatable and able to be pushed back to allow for other set pieces to be whisked onto stage.

The mansion, in tandem with projections and laced curtain designs, create some of the most visually stunning scenes I have seen on Melbourne stages. 

There are several sequences in particular that involve the mansion moving towards the front of the stage as music builds to a crescendo which were production highlights.

Sunset Boulevard is calling the Princess Theatre home until August 11. 

Tickets can be purchased via sunsetmusical.com.au/tickets/melbourne

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Jack Ward
Jack Wardhttp://jacktward.com
Jack is the current editor of ENCORE Melbourne, a producer and assistant chief of staff at Nine News Melbourne, with a love for theatre and the world of performing arts. He moved to Melbourne from regional Victoria at the start of 2022 for study and work opportunities, AND easy access to Australia's theatre capital! Jack spent several years performing on-stage with his community theatre group and school productions.

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