This 'Sunset' glows with more color

By Elizabeth Maupin
Sentinel Theater Critic
Published: May 13, 1999

Meet Norma Desmond, good-time girl.

If you thought you knew Norma Desmond from the famous movie Sunset Boulevard or from Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical of the same name, think again.

The faded movie glamour queen has perked up considerably in the touring version of Lloyd Webber's musical, which is at Carr Performing Arts Centre through Sunday afternoon.

Petula Clark's Norma -- and the version of Sunset in which she appears -- may not be true to the spirit of the 1950 film noir classic, but they're a relief after the overinflated, self-important Broadway version. Thanks to Petula and company, at least you'll be entertained.

Three years ago Lloyd Webber's musical behemoth collected a shelf full of Tony Awards during a season with little competition. But when its producers sent that Sunset out on tour, the cost of moving its massive, hydraulic-lifted set made the venture a losing proposition. With no star as Norma, the enterprise quickly flopped.

Now the tour is on again with a new set design, a new director and, as Norma, the show-biz veteran who began her career as a child star in the 1940s but is best known in the U.S. as singer of the 1960s hit "Downtown." In almost every way, this Sunset takes a lemon and makes lemonade.

What this touring company had to work with was not always promising. There's that great story, of course, and some pretty Lloyd Webber melodies (the same ones over and over again). But Christopher Hampton and Don Black's execrable lyrics are badly rhymed and clunky -- "hormones" with "Somerset Maugham owns," "kosher" with "grocer." And the show's two major characters, Norma Desmond and the screenwriter-gigolo Joe Gillis, are written as so unrelentingly grim that it's hard to care what happens to either one of them.

Still, director Susan H. Schulman (Broadway's The Secret Garden) and scenic designer Derek McLane have rethought major aspects of the show, and what they have done pays off.

McLane threw out Broadway's overpowering set and made a gorgeous design of his own, a mansion created mainly by miles of opulent curtains, with Norma's grand staircase center stage. Whisk the house away and behind it is a bare soundstage, with rolling towers of movie-set furniture; a couple of beautiful drops frame everything as a motion-picture shot.

And Schulman has led her two leads, Clark and Lewis Cleale, to find much-needed warmth in Norma and Joe. Cleale takes the radical step of turning Joe into a guy with a sense of humor: That and a rich, powerful voice make him a major improvement over the original Broadway lead. (His second-act appearance in a bathing suit also sparked a mini-ovation on opening night, and both Cleale and the audience shared the unexpected laughter.)

Clark plays her role like Bette Davis as Norma Desmond, if you can imagine it: She's like a brassy little trumpet, with fire in her black-rimmed eyes and oomph in her voice. At 66, she's considerably older than Glenn Close was on Broadway, and Clark plays up the resulting fragility. But as a singer she also has a much heftier voice; despite an odd tendency to overaccentuate her r's, she makesthe show's best song, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," a beautiful thing.

A sympathetic Sarah Uriarte Berry makes as much as anyone can of the underwritten role ofBetty Schaefer, Joe's writing partner and would-be lover. And Allen Fitzpatrick is suitably formidable as Max von Mayerling, Norma's mysterious butler -- although poor Max is burdened with repeating the show's two favorite lines ad nauseam.

That's the problem with Sunset Boulevard: You keep running into this unyielding musical, with its deadening recitative, its lousy writing and the problematic character of a hero who turns into a cad.

Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard will never replace the movie. But if you insist on having your Sir Andrew, you've come to the right address.

'Sunset Boulevard'

Presented by: Orlando Broadway Series.

Music by: Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Book and lyrics by: Christo-pher Hampton and Don Black.

Cast: Sarah Uriarte Berry, Michael Berry, Petula Clark,Lewis Cleale, Allen Fitzpatrick, George Merner.

Director: Susan H. Schulman.

Choreographer: Kathleen Marshall.

Scenic designer: Derek McLane.

Costume designer: Anthony Powell.

Lighting designer: Peter Kaczorowski.

Sound designer: Tony Meola.

Projection designer: Wendall K. Harrington.

Orchestrations: David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Music director: Michael Rafter.

Conductor: Lawrence Gold-berg.

Music coordinator: John Miller.

Theater: Carr Performing Arts Centre, 401 W. Livingston St., Orlando.

Times: 2 and 8 p.m. today and Saturday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $32.50-$49 ($20 student rush tickets available one hour before performance, except for Friday and Saturday nights).

Reservations: (407) 839-3900.

5/11/99 - 5/16/99
8 p.m. through May 15; 2 p.m. May 13, May 15 and 16

Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre
401 W Livingston St
(407) 849-2577

$32.50 to $49, plus service charge, at Ticketmaster

Where to call:
(407) 839-3900

Andrew Lloyd Webber - Don Black - Christopher Hampton musical, w/ Petula Clark