Coliseum, London – until 6 May 2016
Last night, following the indisposition of the show’s Hollywood leading lady Glenn Close, Ria Jones was called upon to play Norma Desmond. Theatre PR Kevin Wilson was in the audience, and with his permission, I am proud to share his review here.
The West End and Broadway is littered with real-life cases of people taking over in a starring role through illness or misfortune and shows like 42nd Street even use it as the main story frame. But those of us fortunate to personally know Ria Jones – who stepped up to the plate so heroically in Sunset Boulevard last night when Glenn Close was taken ill – know that she is already one of our greatest Musical Theatre stars, yet largely unknown as a “face”.
At 19, she had been the youngest actress ever to play Eva Peron in ‘Evita‘, followed shortly by her stunning West End debut in ‘Chess‘ as both Svetlana and Florence. Grizabella in ‘Cats‘, Fantine in ‘Les Miserables, The Narrator in ‘Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat‘, Liz Imbrie in ‘High Society‘, Reno Sweeney in ‘Anything Goes‘, ‘The Witches of Eastwick‘ all followed, among many other notable roles… Hell, she even created the role of Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s original Sydmonton workshop.
Born to play this flashy, dramatic, highly operatic role, she was always billed as The Alternate Norma, but few expected her to get to actually don the turban. Last night she did with just a few hours’ notice. And she stormed the stage and took the roof off the building. She must have been terrified (and exhilarated in turn) as she uttered Norma’s first words off stage and descended the massive staircase to the stage below and a sea of disappointed punters. But she won them over with a performance that was pure CLASS.
There had been blood on the carpet in the box office as puce-faced theatregoers waving self-print tickets costing hundreds of £££ in the air demanded their money back (no chance, there) – and they delayed the show by 20 agonising minutes. Thanks to just 3 puny notices, hundreds more in their seats weren’t aware anything was wrong… Then the theatre manager (poor man) took to the stage with a microphone and announced Ria was in the lead. Someone behind me in the stalls shamefully shouted out loudly “GIVE US OUR MONEY BACK!” There was no large scale booing but much murmuring and muttering then her army of fans – me included – many in the gods having bought tickets at just an hours’ notice screamed and shouted and clapped her in.
“I know you are in for a treat and it sounds like many of you here know already and agree with me,” the apologist manager finished with final rejoinder to the naysayers.
And Ria was S-E-N-S-A-T-I-O-N-A-L. Backed by the 51-piece ENO orchestra (who all applauded her off stage after the curtain call) she has never sounded better… this was HER MOMENT and she knew she had to be better than she’s ever been before. She hit every high note like a clarion bell. Her final, thrilling defiant “They’ll say Norma’s back at last …With one look I’ll be me!” silenced any doubters that they were seeing an inferior performance… and the crowd went absolutely wild.
At the curtain call, co-star Michael Xavier bowed down before her on stage and producer Michael Grade was first to grab her in the wings as the sound of the cast applauding her enveloped her. A class act, indeed and one I am so priviliged to say I witnessed up close and personal from the front row. It was a night I will never forget.
Siobhan Dillon, Michael Xavier, Ria Jones, Fred Johanson