A melodramatic `Sunset'

Review: Petula Clark softens the role of eccentric Norma Desmond in the redesigned Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

April 01, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"We gave the world/new ways to dream," claims a frequently reprised lyric in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Sunset Boulevard." The production at the Mechanic Theatre, however, is more like a new gloss on old ways to dream. And that's not such a bad thing.

In its original incarnation, this mega-musical -- with a libretto by Don Black and Christopher Hampton based on the 1950 Billy Wilder film -- boasted a set so huge, it put the show in the red the first time it tried to tour. This time around, there's a brand new set, designed by Derek McLane, as well as a new director (Susan H. Schulman) and choreographer (Kathleen Marshall).

For this critic, the new design comes as somewhat of a relief. Instead of giving the protagonist, a faded silent movie star named Norma Desmond, a monstrous mansion that levitates to reveal another set beneath, this touring version relies more on drapes, scrims and backdrops. With its central staircase and pipe organ, however, the mansion is still far from small.

There's another less monstrous element as well. Petula Clark, who played Norma for 18 months in London, is a softer and gentler Norma than either Gloria Swanson, who created the role in the movie, or Glenn Close, who originated it on Broadway.

Norma, for those unfamiliar with the film, is a middle-aged recluse who lives tucked away in her palatial mausoleum of a mansion with her devoted German butler, Max. Then one day, Joe Gillis, a cynical young screenwriter down on his luck, shows up after his car breaks down in front of her house. Norma quickly sinks her claws into him, not entirely against his will, and nobody lives happily ever after.

Clark is pretty thoroughly transformed as Norma, so much so that when she made her entrance at the Mechanic on opening night -- decked out in elegant silk lounging pajamas, a turban and dark glasses -- the audience didn't seem to recognize her. Not until she's well into Norma's first big song, "With One Look," does the timbre of her voice reveal her identity.

Norma is an eccentric role (to say the least), and Clark lends it her own eccentric flair, most evident in her final scene. The costumes in this production are the same Anthony Powell designs that appeared on Broadway, but I don't remember the wreath-like headdress Clark's deranged Norma wears when she descends her living-room staircase for the last time.

Combined with Clark's soft, breathy speaking voice in this scene, the effect comes closer to Ophelia than to a Gorgon and therefore evokes a little more sympathy than horror.

But bathos is primarily what this overblown musical evokes. Lloyd Webber is far from a subtle composer, and this melodramatic material allows him to go overboard with lush, weepy strings and hyperbolic reprises.

You really don't want to stop and analyze the ludicrousness of a washed-up writer wearing nothing but swim trunks and belting out lyrics such as "Sunset Boulevard/brutal Boulevard" or "ruthless Boulevard" or "lethal Boulevard." This may be a show about a star who claims: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small," but at heart it's about little, petty people and their tawdry lives. Wilder may have directed a dark Hollywood satire, but the musical glorifies the rich, cold, glamorous life, and the result is more distancing than convincing.

That said, there are other strong performances in addition to Clark's. Lewis Cleale's Joe Gillis looks as if he stepped out of Gentleman's Quarterly and has a commanding singing voice. If it's hard to care about his character, well, that's because it can be hard to care about someone who doesn't care about himself.

Nonetheless, he does win the heart of Betty, the sweet all-American girl played by Sarah Uriarte Berry, and their romantic duet, "Too Much in Love To Care," is one of the vocal highlights of the evening.

Allen Fitzpatrick also distinguishes himself as loyal Max, described by one character as Norma's "German shepherd." Fitzpatrick has Max's ramrod bearing and severe expression down pat, but he also leaves no doubt that Max is the only character with a heart.

Finally, one last word about McLane's clever set. It's loaded with elements that remind you that "Sunset Boulevard" was a movie about the movies. My favorite is Joe's car -- a movie prop with the front half cut away to make room for a camera and lights, and a screen in back, showing a black-and-white film of the road behind him. None of this is real, McLane seems to be saying. And that's a good way to think about this slickly performed but discomfortingly creepy musical.

`Sunset Boulevard'

Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $37.50-$65.50

Call: 410-752-1200

Pub Date: 4/01/99

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