A softer version of 'Sunset Boulevard'

Petula Clark stars in Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical take on the hard-boiled '50s musical, but it's still a fun ride

Friday, September 17, 1999

By RICHARD WATTENBERG, special to The Oregonian

"Sunset Boulevard" has breezed into town bringing Portlanders a little bit of Hollywood from the '50s as seen by Broadway of the '90s.

With music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, the musical functions well as a star vehicle for Petula Clark.

The story line is based on Billy Wilder's 1950 classic film of the same title. It is a romance of sorts.

In an effort to evade creditors, a young struggling Hollywood screenwriter, Joe Gillis, seeks refuge in what he believes to be an abandoned mansion. He discovers he has entered the domain of a now-reclusive but one-time silent-screen luminary, Norma Desmond.

Desmond, who has been contemplating a comeback, decides to enlist the editorial talents of the fugitive Gillis. He is to help shape her script creation, a sprawling Salome epic, into an appropriate star vehicle.

The relationship between a star hungry for the fame from her past and a writer equally hungry follows some predictable if less-than-innocent romantic turns.

This musical version of the film is a softened version of the Wilder tale.

Webber's moving musical score contributes here, but equally important -- given that much of the spoken and sung text is pulled directly from the movie -- are the performances.

While Glenn Close, who originated the role of Norma on Broadway, may have brought more of an edge to her portrait of Norma, Petula Clark portrays Norma as a more gentle eccentric than did Gloria Swanson in the movie.

Gone are many of the melodramatic gestures, poses and intonations. Clark's Norma takes on a reality that is, consequently, more poignant than that of Swanson's Norma.

Especially touching is Norma's visit to the studio in Act 2. Her interaction with the Paramount employees who remember her from her glory days and Clark's rendering of "As If We Never Said Goodbye" are high points of this production.

As Joe Gillis, Lewis Cleale is less hard-boiled than the film's William Holden. There is something of a preppie gone awry to his performance, but he effectively conveys the sellout's tortured self-recriminations in his final scene with the ever-devoted Betty Schaefer (Christeena Michelle Riggs), and as a singer he demonstrates fine range.

Riggs nicely captures the wholesome innocence of Betty; Allen Fitzpatrick conveys the fullness of the adoration Max, Norma's butler, has for his mistress.

Always present, Max's love for Norma takes on a tragic dimension especially in his deep-voiced presentation of "The Greatest Star of All."

Visually the touring production differs from that seen on Broadway. Director Susan H. Schulman and scenic designer Derek McLane have veered away from the bulky realism of the New York production.

Setting the show entirely within a movie sound stage, this production calls attention to the process of making movies -- or more importantly of making dreams.

While Schulman and McLane bring an intriguing perspective to this Broadway hit, one may wonder if they haven't gone a little too far toward burlesque at times: Their rendition of the car chase scene that lands Joe on Norma's estate, while cute, is perhaps too reminiscent of the kind of antics one sees on Conan O'Brien's late-night talk show.

Continues 7:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Civic Auditorium, 222 S.W. Clay St.; $15-$57.50; 503-790-2787.