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A London Ride Down ‘Sunset’ : Theater: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, the musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s classic film, opens to cautiously favorable notices.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Some of the harshest words ever written about Andrew Lloyd Webber have come from theater critics here.

So the world’s most successful stage composer and impresario must be feeling a measure of relief after reading cautiously favorable notices for his latest work, which premiered Monday night.

The world premiere of “Sunset Boulevard,” his musical adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1950 classic film, was one of the glitziest theater openings this city has seen in years. (The show opens in Los Angeles in December.)

The Strand, one of London’s most historic streets, was jammed with limousines as celebrities came out in droves for Lloyd Webber’s latest first night at the Adelphi Theatre, which he has bought and refurbished specifically for the show.

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Wilder, now 87, flew in from Los Angeles. Actors Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, Jonathan Pryce, Emily Lloyd and Roger Moore joined the throng, as did director Stephen Frears, David Frost, designer Valentino, singer Shirley Bassey and rival impresarios Cameron Mackintosh and Robert Stigwood.

They and the rest of the audience gave standing ovations to Patti LuPone, who played Wilder’s aging movie queen Norma Desmond, and to Kevin Anderson as Joe Gillis, the young Hollywood screenwriter she entraps.

The premiere also answered questions about director Trevor Nunn’s staging of various scenes in Wilder’s film. There was no swimming pool on stage; the early scene in which Joe is seen dead in Norma’s pool was re-created by blue lights reflected on a giant gauze screen high above the stage, behind which Anderson was suspended as if floating. Footage from the movie was projected to simulate car-chase scenes.

Enthusiastic applause greeted two songs from LuPone--"With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” A major first-night talking point was designer John Napier’s re-creation of Desmond’s gaudy mansion, a rococo jumble of curved staircases, embossed pillars, candles and organ pipes. At one point, the mansion’s interior lifts off to reveal beneath it a simultaneous New Year’s Eve party in a low-rent Hollywood apartment.

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The critics responded well to much of this. The London Times’ Benedict Nightingale said the show was “often gorgeous to look at, enchanting to hear, and, more than most of (Lloyd Webber’s) works, merits the century-long run it may achieve.”

LuPone’s performance met with almost unanimous acclaim. “I cannot believe it will ever be thought of as anything but her show,” wrote the critic for the tabloid Today. Napier’s designs, too, won rave reviews.

Reservations tended to center on Lloyd Webber’s music (with words by librettist Christopher Hampton and lyricist Don Black). The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer found the first-act music “unmemorable, slowing down the action while contributing little in the way of atmosphere.” The Daily Express agreed; the music was “something of a disappointment. For much of the time the score simply demonstrates Lloyd Webber’s deft gift for pastiche.”

The reviewers agreed that the musical stayed close to Wilder’s original story. Hampton and Black retained some of his best-known lines in their entirety, including Norma’s protestation: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

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But the Guardian’s Michael Billington argued that the tone of the musical was quite different from the film: “What was originally cold, hard and sardonic, here becomes warm, soft and romantic . . . a hymn to Hollywood dreams rather than a detached satiric attack on their ultimate destructiveness.”

In the London Evening Standard, Nicholas de Jongh offered the most savage opinion to date: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has done it again, and I wish he had not. His ‘Sunset Boulevard’ is a triumph of camp extremity over subtlety. It looks like at least a million dollars--but only proves that money is far from being everything. It borrows too much, generates too little, except expensive spectacle and bland music.”

However, at a party for cast and friends after the show at the Savoy Hotel, Wilder told the media he “loved it very much. They did a great job, with lots of respect to my original.”

Lloyd Webber professed himself pleased with the first night and offered that “Sunset Boulevard” was among his best works: “If you don’t feel you’ve done better than what you’ve done in the past, there would be something wrong.”

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He will be particularly pleased the critics stopped short of outright hostility. The recession has brought tough times to London’s West End, and just before the first night of “Sunset Boulevard,” it was announced that the production here of “City of Angels” (another musical with a screenwriter hero in 1940s Hollywood) was closing prematurely after four months, despite excellent notices.

Still, “Sunset Boulevard” should not suffer the same fate as “City of Angels.” Lloyd Webber has spent $4.5 million to stage it here, but advance ticket sales are already said to be in the region of $7.5 million.

Now that the show has been launched in London, Lloyd Webber can turn his attention to Los Angeles, where “Sunset Boulevard” will open at the structurally renovated Shubert Theater with Glenn Close.


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