Petula Clark puts dazzle in 'Sunset'
As Norma, singer offers humor, pathos and helps saves show

Randy Cordova
The Arizona Republic
Sep 14 1999 12:34:56

Billy Wilder's 1950 film Sunset Boulevard is a wonderfully bitter, cynical look at Hollywood and the vagaries of celebrity. But Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicalization of the piece, which plays at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe through Sunday, lacks the bite of the original. It's like a pit bull without the fangs.

The play softens the story of Joe Gillis, a desperate young screenwriter who becomes entwined with Norma Desmond, a legendary screen actress whose career evaporated when sound was introduced to film.

Desmond is living in the past, a prisoner of faded fame and obstinate pride. Her only companions are Max, an imposing German butler, and a chimpanzee that she cares for with a mother's devotion.

Gillis enters her gothic-style mansion seeking refuge from a pair of repo men out for his car. Soon he's helping Desmond fashion a script for her comeback - "I hate that word!" she boils - and getting locked in an intimate relationship with the actress. She buys him tailored clothes and showers him with expensive gifts while he's becoming less of a writer and more a kept man.

The story is still tantalizing even without Wilder's dark-humored wit. But the literal script by Don Black and Christopher Hampton turns the tale into more of a straightforward melodrama than anything remotely multileveled.

And the book never moves quite as smoothly as it should, something the direction by Susan H. Schulman doesn't remedy. For instance, the characters of Norma and Max are meaty and well-drawn, with complex emotions and powerful sentiments. But Gillis is never more than a cipher, and his young friends are plastic and empty, like outlines no one bothered to sketch in.

Under Schulman's direction, the scenes involving Norma and Max are rich and foreboding, with an exciting sense of expectation and wonderment hanging in the air.

But when we focus on Joe and his pals at Schwab's Drugstore or at a boisterous New Year's Eve party, it's loud and empty, like a high-school production of Bye Bye Birdie. Gillis says his friends are "nicotine- poisoned" drinkers, but this gang looks like it belongs at an Osmond family reunion.

The casting of the play is consistent with the writing of the roles. Chandler's Christeena Michelle Riggs is serviceable in the underwritten part of Betty Schaefer, Gillis' love interest. And Lewis Cleale, who plays Gillis, sings persuasively, though he tends to swallow his words in emotional passages.

Allen Fitzpatrick, however, does wonders with the role of Max, bringing tenderness and grace to a part that could be nothing more than a comic throwaway. In one lovely scene, Max shadows Norma as she watches one of her old films. She is still acting out her death scene as Joan of Arc, and Max silently follows her every gesture in the background. It's a beautifully directed moment, and the actor is marvelous.

The biggest revelation is Petula Clark in the role of Norma. Even her longtime admirers must have been surprised by the casting of the Downtown singer in this role, but she attacks the part with a startling ferocity. Her singing voice is clear and powerful, and she turns the character's moving As If We Never Said Goodbye into a compelling anthem of misplaced hope.

She also does surprising things with her speaking voice. Her Norma talks in a flat mid-America cadence that is quite unattractive, and it's obvious why the woman's career ended when silent pictures went o
* * *
Randy Cordova can be reached at (602) 444-8096 or at via e-mail.