Petula Clark puts dazzle in 'Sunset'
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
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