SUNSET BOULEVARD (Through Nov. 21)

Reviewed by David-Edward Hughes

"Sunset Boulevard," presented by PACE Theatrical Group and Columbia Artists Theatricals, in association with Jon B. Platt, at the Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle. Aug. 3-15, 1999. (206) 292-2787. Tour continues Sept. 7-12 at Grady Gammage Auditorium, Mill Ave. and Apache Blvd., Tempe, Ariz., (602) 965-3434; Sept. 13-19 in Portland, Ore.; Sept. 20-26 in Salt Lake City, Utah; Sept. 27-Oct. 3 in Sacramento, California; Oct. 5-10 at the Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, $33-57, (213) 480-3232; Oct. 13-Nov. 7 at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary Blvd., San Francisco, $32-77, (415) 512-7770; Nov. 8-14 in Palm Desert, Calif., and Nov. 15-21 in Albuquerque, NM.

That "Downtown" gal Petula Clark makes the move to Sunset Boulevard quite impressively in the Susan H. Schulman-directed tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber spectacle, based on the classic Billy Wilder film. Derek McLane's clever set is scaled down from the wonderment of the London/L.A./Broadway original with its show-stealing hydraulics. McLane's set, ideally lit by designer Peter Kaczorowski, is eminently effective and eerie, with movable towers of movie studio props framing the action, and a still-grand but decaying Hollywood mansion at the center of things.

Overall, Schulman's Sunset is more character-focused and compassionate, and we follow the tragic yet darkly comic saga of faded 1920s movie siren Norma Desmond more easily, thanks also to rescuing a good bit of Don Black and Christopher Hampton's book from recitative and making it into easier-to-follow dialogue.

The plot about a Hollywood hack screenwriter becoming the ghost writer cum gigolo of a seemingly dotty, forgotten silent screen star who leads him down the path to destruction is sometimes well served in the musicalization, sometimes not. Norma's big songs "Surrender," "With One Look," and "As If We Never Said Goodbye," the latter two with Amy Powers' lyrics, are far superior to Joe's ludicrous title song and the Evita-tinged ensemble numbers.

Still, Clark and company work wonders with their less than perfect material. Pitching her voice tightly into a Katharine Hepburn-like Yankee bark, running the gamut from scheming bitch goddess to Mary Pickford innocent and finally to utter madness, Clark delivers a Norma that is dramatically the equal, but on its own terms, to Glenn Close's, and she sings her songs with a still rich, powerful voice, rarely wandering into any of her familiar pop vocalist inflections. She also looks great in Anthony Powell's original elaborate costumes. Lewis Cleale rightly plays Joe Gillis more like the William Holden screen version, a user who ends up being used, and he gives more to his so-so songs than they give back. Cleale has strong chemistry with both Clark and with Sarah Uriarte Berry's feisty, brainy Betty Schaefer. Choreographer Kathleen Marshall gives the staging of the Betty/Joe duet "Too Much In Love To Care" a funny, Jeanette-and-Nelson spin that makes the number work for the first time. Allen Fitzpatrick is vocally outstanding and emotionally on-target as Max Norma's first husband and former film director, now her butler/caretaker, and George Merner is fine as Cecil B. DeMille.

The ensemble members are game and versatile, and are especially fun to watch as they gape, tear up, and puzzle over Norma's return to the studio. Sunset Boulevard may have missed classic musical status, but the current tour is a must for both Webber and Clark fans.