Art imitates life as Andrew Lloyd Webber's play unfurls on the Saginaw stage.
by Sue White
February 16, 2000
Tuesday night's standing ovation at Heritage Theater said it all.
"Sunset Blvd." had come to its explosive close, and Petula Clark – the play's aging film star, Norma Desmond – joined the cast for final bows. Everyone was on their feet, and the applause thundered through the theater.
Yet even though Clark was still in costume, she was no longer in character. Instead of some Gloria Swanson remnant of Hollywood's silent era, it was the bright-eyed pop music icon baby-boomers remember for "Downtown" and "Don't Sleep in the Subway."
With the subtle shift in mannerism came the realization of the depth Clark brought to a demanding role. Oh, she can sing, and you know Andrew Lloyd Webber gave her songs to die for, "Surrender," for example, and "The Greatest Star of All."
But far more haunting was the dramatic edge she brought to the stage, and the courage it must have taken to tackle a role that, well, doesn't paint fading stars in the most flattering light.
Then again, to audience members who only knew her for her music, this is one star on the rise. And Clark wasn't alone – dynamite performances played out against an intriguing blend of film and theater made this one of the best theatrical productions to hit the Saginaw stage.
True to Lloyd Webber's reputation, "Sunset Blvd." is busy from the start. Screenwriter Joe Gillis, charming in a gumshoe sort of way as played by Lewis Cleale, sets off to sell a script, sidestepping repos session men as he pitches his idea to Paramount big-shots.
The studio is Cecil B. DeMille's territory – he even reigns over scenes on occasion – and it's bigger than life. You could say it sets the stage – literally – as elaborate sets seamlessly slide into place, transforming Stage 18 into a busy Hollywood thoroughfare to a tapestry-hung mansion.
But "Sunset Blvd." is about character – a character, as Gillis calls Desmond on their first meeting, and then, as their unlikely relationship grows, a study in character.
The enthusiasm of youth, the sadly misplaced appreciation of age, and, in Max von Mayerling (Allen Fitzpatrick), an unwavering love that can't see beyond its object of affection – it's a deadly combination that slowly devours all involved.
"Sunset Blvd." is every bit as melodramatic as the supposed films that made Norma Desmond a household name, still another play on itself. And Clark's Desmond rises to the occasion, climaxing in a scene as dramatic as the unmasking of the Phantom of the Opera as she moves beyond eccentricity in the realm of, say, Charles Dickens' Miss Haversham.
Yet it wouldn't work without Cleale's Gillis to balance the score. He's an innocent, an opportunist, a tortured charmer. He and Fitzpatrick's Max keep Desmond grounded in credibility.
There was even a local nod, however unintentional. The perimeter of the opening backdrop was measured out by Lufkin Rule, the Saginaw measurement company that once "ruled" the world, so speaking.
Even given the Broadway series, it's rare that a production of this caliber makes its way to Saginaw. This is one you don't want to miss.
"Sunset Blvd.” continues at 8 p.m. today at the Saginaw Civic Center's Heritage Theater, 303 Johnson. Call the box office at 759-1330 to check on ticket availability.