Anyway, for the uninitiated, Ria Jones was the person who originated the character of Norma (as she appears in the musical) in the original production of the show back in about 1992 at the Syndmonton Festival. She was also the understudy for Glenn Close in the London production last year, which is probably all you really need to know - except that from her programme shot she looks like the Norma in my head, though oddly not so much when actually in costume!
Danny Mac was a runner up on Strictly Come Dancing and other than that I know nothing about him, but he was appropriately pretty so that'll do for me. :P
Such being said, the audience seemed to comprise mostly Strictly fans and Ria Jones fanboys and a fair few Sunset fangirls - which is a vast improvement on when we saw it in London and the audience was mostly people who were only there to see Glenn Close in her West End debut with no concept of the actual show. (The same people who subsequently threw a hissy fit when Glenn Close was off sick and Ria Jones took her place, walking out before the show even started - but fie on them because they have no idea what they were missing.)
I very much suspect the reason for the sudden UK tour, so close off the back of the London show, is because (a) it was so popular (as it always is whenever it rolls back around!) and also (b) next year will be the show's 25th anniversary, so I'm hoping the tour is a run-up to a great big London show which will (fingers crossed!) be filmed and/or broadcast live and thus released on DVD. Because HOW AWESOME WOULD THAT BE? I'd love to see Ruthie Henshall as Norma, actually...
Right, that was a bit of a digression, so here's the actual write-up. I will tackle this in the same way as the last one, scene by scene. I have made some rough (mostly illegible) notes to work from, scribbled down when I got home Friday night, so hopefully I won't forget anything!
Overture / I Guess It Was 5 A.M.
I will start, as ever, with a description of the set. This was a full production which in many ways was not dissimilar to the last tour, 15 years ago (wow, I feel old), and Paul and I were immediately excited on arrival at the theatre because the stage was dominated by two sliding screens, onto which various different things were projected - whilst the audience were seated it simply had "Stage 18" on it. The entire back and side of the rest of the set was covered in white tiles - presumably an extension of the famous terazzo, but it also had a decidedly clinical / institutional look about it, almost resembling padded walls. There was in fact a lot of foreshadowing in how the show was put together, in addition to what's already in the text itself, so I'm guessing that was intentional. The other sets comprised Norma's mansion (the organ, the sofa, a moving staircase in three pieces), the Paramount gates and the Schwab's backdrop.
I think I probably said this last time, but this is one of those scores which really benefits from having a full orchestra - all the sweeping string moments are just gorgeous (my love for the 'Car Chase' theme knows no bounds).
So, for the overture, the 'Stage 18' projection changed to the rippling blue-green of a swimming pool, which gradually got tinged with blood as the opening song kicked in and an unidentified body appeared. The blood was the first thing in this production to grab my attention, and in several parts it really pulled no punches, but I'll get to them later.
Danny Mac was pretty good, I'll be honest - you generally expect the tour productions to be less polished than the big London shows in many ways, and there wasn't any point where I felt he was floundering or out of his depth (no irony intended there!) - he definitely made the part his own.
In many ways, I was very spoiled by the first UK tour production, and for me it has become the bar by which all other productions are measured - both in terms of the set (that staircase will go down in history!) and the talent involved, and also the fact that it was solely responsible for situating the show as one of my all-time favourites. There are lots of musicals I would love to see, and lots that I would like to see repeatedly - I've seen Cats four times now, and Phantom twice (technically thrice but I can barely remember the first) - this was my sixth (live) viewing of Sunset and my fourth actual production of it. (I've seen it eight times / five productions if you include the 1994 Broadway bootleg.) It's a show that I will always endeavour to see when funding / location allows, because every new production is different and every time I see it, I find new things to theorise about.
It also bears mentioning, at this point, that since the London show I have watched the above-mentioned bootleg footage from YouTube twice - the 1994 Broadway production starring Betty Buckley and Alan Campbell (the APR Joe). I never did get around to doing an LJ write-up of that, but I might mention elements of it here for comparison purposes!
Let's Have Lunch
This show had a relatively small cast - probably no more than ten extras all in if you exclude Sheldrake / De Mille. Nonetheless, this sequence created a great sense of chaos. The Paramount gates setpiece was gorgeous - basically an archway in two pieces with a small gap between the actual gates, so even though they didn't open people could still move in and out of them. The main thing I really noticed this time around was that they'd returned to a sense of bright colour in the Hollywood sequences, as is right and proper - particularly the extras from Samson and Delilah (as being shot by De Mille at the time). A couple of productions have gone down the route of trying to emulate the black-and-white scenery of the source material, which worked really well in the smaller London show back in 2009, but would get lost in a larger production.
One slight change was that Joe's agent was female, which probably has about five million layers of subtext if I wanted to delve into it, but if I do that we'll be here all day. It just warranted a mention. :P
We had a delightfully nerdy Artie (complete with glasses), though the guy playing him (Dougie Carter) looked about 12. Which is admittedly not uncommon for Arties (!) but kind of odd when you consider he's meant to be similar in age to Joe. At least, I always assumed he was. Not complaining though, because he was totes adorbs. (I will always wave a flag for Team Artie.)
The scene with Sheldrake was fun, particularly the "get me that shithead Nolan" bit where he follows it up by schmoozing at the aforesaid Nolan - he had a desk covered in different coloured telephones and a(nother) long-suffering secretary. I wasn't too enamoured of Betty (Molly Lynch) as her voice was a bit too Disney/Sesame Street. She grew on me as the show progressed but I wasn't that impressed with her voice. She didn't come across as strongly as some other Bettys - in particular, I can remember she didn't correct Sheldrake the second time he got her name wrong (or it was too quiet to hear).
Danny Mac did the same resigned hands-in-the-air as Michael Xavier, but was generally a lot less of a presence during the big group numbers, not just in this scene but throughout the show. That makes sense, actually, and it was a great way of showing how he really didn't have a place anywhere in Hollywood. The bits where he was interacting with other characters (Joanna, Sammy, etc) obviously had him in the middle of the Paramount chaos, and (as ever) showed him being an incorrigible flirt. It doesn't take much to work out how he got himself into such a mess in the first place, really. :P
The finance guys were appropriately sleazy and the bit where Joe was trying to escape was really well done. When he was getting Betty to help, the finance guys were silhouetted in the background, and the actual chase was amusing - including Joe stealing a bit of costume from one of the extras from Samson and Delilah to hide under.
GUH, THAT MUSIC.
I'm always intrigued to find out how different productions achieve this scene, and this time around they basically had a cross-section of a car (including a seat / driving column and part of the bonnet) being pushed to face different directions, in front of the two sliding set pieces, onto which were projected high-speed background shots of the Hollywood streets from various different angles. It was an interesting take and technically well done.
At the House on Sunset
The House itself was also projected onto the sliding set pieces, which were on either side of the stage, and it looked like a cross between the castle from Nosferatu and the house from Rocky Horror. I'm... not sure if that was intentional, but it was appropriately dilapidated / foreboding.
As opening numbers for characters go, you can't really beat this one. The most important thing to note here was that nobody laughed when the monkey was revealed, which says a lot for how well Ria Jones performed the song. I can't decide whether I prefer that reveal coming before or after the song - when it's before, there's a chance for whoever is playing Norma to bring everyone solidly back to reality with the song, but when it's after there's no room for manouevre. Actually, it's almost darker that way and feels more disrespectful to laugh at it.
With One Look
Basically awesome. (One particularly excitable fanboy uttered a starry-eyed "Bravo!!" after this, which was... yeah, dude, there are BIGGER SONGS than this coming up, you might want to save your energy...)
Throughout the song there were bits of black-and-white footage of Norma's glory days being projected into the background. This is a nice nod to the fact that her house is full of photographs (obvs) but also my favourite headcanon of why Joe recognises her.
Interestingly, at several points during this production - I think initially during WOL - there was a camera following Norma around / filming her from across the stage, which would then disappear or merge into the background. At the time, I associated this in my head to the Young!Norma element of the London show, in that the camera would appear whenever she was reminiscing or lost in the past, and it wasn't explicitly clear if it was around Norma's own self-perception, or everyone else getting dragged into that illusion along with her.
It was also a lovely bit of foreshadowing for the ending, which I imagine is the main reason it was there, and as with everything else in this fandom I am over-analysing it...
The main thing I took from this was that Ria Jones's Norma was very touchy-feely right from the start, which seems accurate (but again, I was spoiled by the 2002 tour in that regard!) The main thing I remember from this was from the "Have you got to the scene where she asks for his head?" bit, where she literally wrapped the scarf/veil around Joe's neck to demonstrate "if she can't have him living, she'll take him dead".
Of course, the comic timing on "Just how old is Salome?" / "16" was PERFECT.
The Greatest Star of All
Now seems as good a time as any to mention Max (Adam Pearce), as this is his first proper moment. He had a decent voice and his portrayal was nothing unexpected, though there was a great level of protectiveness over Norma - particularly in the funeral scene at the end. Where the last London Max was reluctant to offer comfort (which I loved because it made that 'husband' reveal pack more of a punch), Adam Pearce's Max had no such qualms and led Norma away from the scene with an arm around her shoulders.
Every Movie's A Circus / Girl Meets Boy
This was another scene where Joe was on the sidelines towards the end, though on his arrival he was more part of the action. More delightfully nerdy Artie. :)
I liked how they portrayed the Schwab's set here, with the audience looking at it from the perspective of the bar. There was a set of double doors in between two big windows, the famous sign (backwards) above the door, and an outside street scene being projected through the windows - with cars going past and everything! (One establishment 'over the road' was called Erick's.)
This is one of the early moments where we see Joe's frustration bubble over (the first is after the meeting with Sheldrake, though to less of a degree than here), when he tells Betty "it's out" in regards to the script. He manages to gain control over it, though, and feels guilty for yelling at her, offering to give her some 'ground rules' instead. For me, it shows the crux of his character and the situation he finds himself in - he reacts in anger when things get on top of him, and then regrets it and tries to make amends. Obviously, the New Year's Eve scenario is an extreme example of the same thing happening.
Back at the House on Sunset / New Ways to Dream
NWtD was staged slightly differently to I'm used to, focusing more on Norma/Max rather than the burgeoning Norma/Joe that it usually represents. I can't say I'm particularly happy about that (because I am fickle fangirl) but there were still some nice moments, such as Norma encouraging Joe to sit next to her and then shuffling that little bit closer to watch the movie.
There were more projections of old footage again here. Norma's rendition was more melancholic than impassioned, but TBH it works either way. Joe's monologue section was performed with him standing up and away from the sofa, as usual, but he didn't go back to take Norma's hand in comfort (woe!). In fact, that was done by Max, and there was a lovely little moment where he and Norma were laughing fondly together at the movie on screen. (I liked that as a precursor to finding out their history.)
Completion of the Script
So, where NWtD is usually the turning point for Joe in realising Norma's fragility, in this production it was here, and I was not disappointed. What I found really interesting was that he was attempting to leave with his bags / typewriter already packed, which is the first time I've seen it done that way. Absolutely no room for manoevure whatsoever in his head - he's going and that's that. And then Norma's panic sets in and he ends up staying.
As you may recall from my last write-up, I have become somewhat obsessed with the concept of hand-holding / hand-touching as part of their growing dynamic, and this scene executed it perfectly. Having a more lightly affectionate Norma really helped, actually - I imagine it's quite difficult to live with someone like that and not get accustomed to it / start to return it.
Something really, really interesting about this particular version - after Joe had agreed to stay and was doing his monologue to the audience, Norma was making her way up the stairs and actually looked back with a knowing expression, making sure he wasn't going anywhere. I commented last time that the London show was the first version I'd seen where Joe was very aware of what he was doing, and out of that production arose a headcanon that Norma's manipulation of him was sometimes unintentional (because she doesn't know any better / just reacts like that out of instinct). This was the first time where that manipulation was obvious. Basically - both of them were entirely aware of what the other was trying to do, and both of them let it continue regardless. It's so gloriously self-destructive and makes me wonder how either of them thought it would end well...
The Lady's Paying
This is never not entertaining. :D
My favourite bit was Norma gently entertaining the accumulated assistants from the shop on the "I own so many apartments, I've forgotten which is which", with them politely laughing. I got the impression that Manfred (the guy who owns the shop) really is her "greatest fan", and as such probably gave each and every one of his staff a set of firm instructions before they even got there.
It's hard to avoid the sleazy undertones to the song (in the 1994 Broadway version it's borderline uncomfortable, and played to perfection) but they didn't make too much of a meal of it here. It is what it is, basically.
Once again, I really loved the "please don't me so mean to me" bit as an indication of their relationship at that point.
New Year's Eve / The Perfect Year
OH GOD NOT AGAIN. I always have too many words to spew out on this so I'll try and let this just cover the changes/nuances, from what I can remember.
Firstly, given that Danny Mac was on Strictly, I probably should have anticipated an epic tango scene! I just want to mention that now in case I forget it in the inevitable ramble that will follow.
Okay, so, the first thing I really loved here was Joe's reaction to Norma coming down the stairs - a literal "wow". Just lovely. Part of me is half-convinced it's just him trying to be polite, but it also seemed to be genuine - an acknowledgement of the effort, if nothing else. But yes, once again, it's easy to see that he really does not help himself in this scene...
The tango itself was just... GUH. As always. I was unfortunately sitting behind a tall bloke with a massive head, so had to keep craning my neck to see around him (we were in row Q so not too far back, but the tiering is not very good at the Hippodrome in certain places) and may have missed some of the smaller moments, but generally it didn't disappoint.
I was getting worried at one point during Norma's final verse because they were both holding champagne glasses and NOT DANCING (just after the bit where they're laughing together and she has to catch her breath, which is always adorable), because it looked like they were just going to forego any kind of physical contact at that point. Then, thankfully, Max appeared to retrieve them and I stopped worrying.
I'm always intrigued by how different directors interpret this sequence and where / when they decide to place that first kiss. I can still remember that the UK Tour version basically kept us hanging until the VERY END of Act One (after Joe comes back) because the director clearly recognised the power of the chemistry and UST and wanted to drag it out as long as possible. In that case, I really wasn't complaining, because the actual tango bit was so feels-inducing on its own.
Anyway, this time the first kiss was right at the end of the song, which makes sense in terms of the lyrics. I was pleased that the audience didn't feel the need to laugh, as that's always an indication that they've played the scene well in terms of the emotion. Like, the kiss should be a surprise, but also not.
What I really, really liked was that Joe's default reaction, when faced with the revelation of Norma's feelings, was to try and let her down gently rather than getting angry - that he was already at a point where he didn't want to upset her. The delivery of "Cut out that 'us' business" was lovely, as was his quiet, tired, silent acknowledgement to "What right? Do you want me to tell you?" That was a definite moment where he realised just how badly things had turned out and how far he'd been dragged into her world.
The part where he can't respond ("What you're trying to say is that you don't want me to love you.") is almost foreshadowing in itself, reflected later on when he won't (or can't) say that he hates her - or doesn't - even when she asks. He has somehow managed to avoid acknowledging Norma's feelings, has firmly squashed his own rather than think about them, and then she just hits the nail right on the head. Yes, wouldn't it be easier if she didn't love him? Of course it would, but to acknowledge that would mean also acknowledging that he inadvertently led her on in the first place, and probably should have seen it coming. He'd rather stay in denial, even when all the warning signs are there.
That, more than Norma slapping him, is where the anger comes from - it's only ever directed towards himself, even though he tries to direct it elsewhere.
This Time Next Year
The New Year's Eve party in this production was helpfully being held at Schwab's to cut down on building an extra set. As before with the big group scenes, Joe spent the majority of it brooding off to the side (other than his interactions with Betty / Artie.)
A quick note on Artie before I forget - at the opening of the scene he was drunkenly (badly) attempting to dance with Betty, who wasn't having any of it. That makes sense considering Joe probably doesn't turn up until gone 11.00pm (it turns midnight whilst he's there), and considering it's technically his party - of course he'd be a bit merry and enjoying himself. (When Joe asked to use the phone, Artie's response was "Schwab's, can we use your phone?" - really cute, and obviously a way of making the line make sense in terms of the setting.) I wanted to mention this more in the context of a later scene (and a shiny new headcanon), so I'll come back to it later. But yes, nerdy tipsy Artie, I approve. <3
Throughout the song we could see Norma in the background, standing on the staircase and smoking, watching the door, waiting for Joe, whilst Max occasionally topped up her champagne glass and tried to keep her occupied. I always like seeing what's going on back at the House whilst the party is going on, especially when they find a way to show those two scenes simulataneously. I can't remember the exact point where the scene transitioned back fully to Schwab's, but obviously it was before Joe made the telephone call.
Oh, a quick note on that - Max was off to the side on a higher platform as he took the call, wearing a white, blood-stained towel over his shoulder. That was a bit of a jaw-drop moment for me because I wasn't expecting it. Like I said - they pulled no punches on the darker themes.
New Year's Eve / Back at the House on Sunset
I can't quite remember how Joe made his entrance here, because the transition back to the mansion was a bit chaotic - I think there was a conga line going on to the strains of Auld Lang Syne to get everyone off stage again. I have a soft spot for Joe running in (one of my favourite bits of the movie is when Max tells him not to rush up the stairs, and then he can't quite not break into a run) and the scene moved very quickly to "What kind of a silly thing was that to do?" so I can't really recall how he arrived. Anyway, it's not that important. :P
That final moment was just... GUH. Norma's obvious manipulation of him (on "Happy New Year... darling.") got a laugh as expected, but that didn't actually detract from the awesomeness of the kiss itself - or indeed the unexpected sweetness of the one before it. Her grabby hands were not quite so obvious and honestly, it just went on and on.. and on. No complaints whatsoever from me!
Right, it took me far too long to get around to this and (of course) it's taking me longer than anticipated, so I will post this first part now and tackle the rest after dinner - or possibly tomorrow.
Watch this space!