Great divas never die; they just wait for the next Broadway revival. Nearly 70 years after faded star Norma Desmond swanned into pop-culture legend in Billy Wilder’s classic 1950 film noir, she’s still a spangled, endlessly quotable icon of Hollywood madness — and a delicious opportunity for any actress over 40 who knows her way around a big gesture and a bejeweled turban.
When Gloria Swanson originated the part she was just past 50, the same age as her onscreen alter ego; Glenn Close, who first headlined Andrew Lloyd Webber’s sensational stage adaptation in 1993, returns to the role at a riper 69, but still very much ready for her closeup, Mr. DeMille. The current Palace Theatre run has been transported from last year’s acclaimed London run with its cast and staging nearly intact — including Close as Desmond, the aging silent-movie icon who refuses to believe she isn’t still the same dewy starlet of yesteryear; Michael Xavier as Joe Gillis, the struggling young screenwriter who stumbles into her twilit world; Fred Johanson as a sonorous, uncommonly devoted butler; and Siobhan Dillon as Betty Schaffer, the pert copygirl who represents youth and creativity and everything else Joe leaves behind when he becomes Norma’s semi-willing hostage-slash-paramour. (Xavier and Dillon are British, though both slip easily into their apple-pie American accents.)
Director Lonny Price (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, 110 in the Shade) keeps his set shrewdly minimal, bracketing it in bare scaffolding and winding staircases with a scrim that periodically lowers to show black-and-white projections of vintage Los Angeles filmstock. And nobody puts orchestra-baby in the corner: The 40-piece ensemble is placed firmly at center stage, a semi-screened locus around which the cast spins and weaves.
Price does indulge in a few witty visual flourishes — particularly a teetering Seussical stack of crystal chandeliers and a body suspended over the stage by wires, its dappled under-light mimicking the movie’s infamous opening-scene preview of Joe’s watery death. But there’s only one true star allowed on these boards, and her name is Norma. Close, swaddled in a shimmering swathes of silk and diamanté and velvet brocade, acknowledges the decades of high camp baked into Desmond’s glittery delusions (and has no choice but to pause for the ecstatic shrieks certain signature lines garner).
But even as she plays them for laughs, she digs for the pathos too. Whether mourning her dead pet chimpanzee, begging her recalcitrant lover not to leave, or drawing out the money notes from Lloyd Weber’s lavish score, she takes care to keep her hands cupped around the tender flame of humanity that still flickers somewhere beneath all the brittle melodrama. Her masterful portrayal also delivers the one thing poor nutty Norma most craves: An adoring, utterly captivated audience, and applause that echoes long after the curtain falls. A–