Petula the only gem in Sunset Boulevard
Sunset Boulevard National Arts Centre, through Sunday
Lloyd Webber limp, uninspired in musical of movie

by Steven Mazey
The Ottawa Citizen

February 3, 2000

There’s at least one bit of good news to report from “Sunset Boulevard,” the limp and uninspired stage musical that opened Tuesday night at the National Arts Centre.

The show is Andrew Lloyd Webber's version of the classic 1950 film about a forgotten silent film star who lives in a crumbling Hollywood mansion and, more than 25 years after her heyday, still dreams of making a comeback.

When Joe Gillis, a failed young screenwriter, stumbles into her life, she hires him to write her comeback script. As they work together, she falls in love with him. Desperate for money, he manipulates her emotions to get what he can from Norma before abandoning her.

On the screen, it was a dark and memorable look at the ways Hollywood can destroy the people who work there.

The stage version is a mushy, shallow imitation, but the good news is that Petula Clark, who stars as Norma, is in remarkably fine voice at 67. She sings with warmth, expressiveness and soaring line, and she gets just about everything that it's possible to get out of the music. In one of the musical's few affecting scenes, Norma visits her old studio, and is overcome with emotion. She sings “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” one of the few songs in the show that isn't instantly forgettable. Clark gives it both power and depth.

The scene manages to approach some of the power of director Billy Wilder's movie, but it's about the only moment in the musical that does.

Otherwise, fans of the movie will be disappointed, and those who haven't seen the film are likely to wonder what the fuss was about.

The stage musical displays none of the brittleness or the jagged wit that made the movie so memorable. There's also little evidence of what inspired Lloyd Webber to adapt the film.

Lyricists Don Black and Christopher Hampton have transplanted much of the movie's dialogue intact, but it somehow feels leaden and plodding here.

And their lyrics are often laughable.

At the beginning of Act Two, Joe sings Sunset Boulevard, an angry song about shattered illusions. The lyrics, which are sadly typical of most of the show, go something like this: "Sunset Boulevard, mythic boulevard. Sunset Boulevard, brutal boulevard. Sunset Boulevard, tempting boulevard."

Not much rhymes with boulevard, apparently.

As for the music, it tends to display Lloyd Webber at his bombastic and repetitive worst. There's too much of the thick, syrupy romantic sound of “Phantom of the Opera,” and you sit through it wondering what happened to the composer who wrote the richly layered and inventive music for “Evita.”

It's a shame, because the story was rich with potential for interesting music. The final scene, when Norma suffers her worst crisis, could have had the kind of terrifying power that songwriters Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim produced in “Rose's Turn,” the breakdown scene at the end of “Gypsy.”

But there's nothing so rich or imaginative here.

Although she has a strong stage presence, Petula Clark is better at singing than acting. In the early scenes, she too often seems to be going for laughs, barking out commands to her butler Max much as Carol Burnett used to do in her priceless parodies of the movie.

At the end of the first act, it's revealing that when Norma grabs Joe and pulls him urgently toward her for a kiss, the scene draws laughs rather than the uneasiness that the movie prompted.

Clark provides more depth and emotion in the second act, and slowly begins to suggest some of the character's vulnerability and fear.

As Joe, Lewis Cleale has a fine voice, but dramatically, he's a bland presence. He never convincingly suggests Joe's progression from hopeful writer to bitter manipulator, but that's partly the fault of the sketchy way his role has been written.

The supporting actors are given little to do, although Allen Fitzpatrick manages a few tender moments as Norma's protective butler.

Derek McLane's sets are a scaled-down version of the show's original overwhelming designs, but they're still impressive, including the set for Norma's mansion, with its hanging drapes and candelabras and ornate staircase.

Costume designer Anthony Powell came up with eye-popping kimonos and turbans for Norma. Director Susan Schulman has tried to give the show a fluid, dreamy style. But everyone involved is working against the weak material.

There are also some of the problems that affect too many touring musicals.

The tinny sound system makes the chorus numbers all but unintelligible. When you see them, you will realize this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

As well, the tiny pit "orchestra" relies heavily on synthesizers to replace the sound of a real orchestra. The result often sounds canned, as if the singers are performing to pre-recorded music.

It's nice to see Clark still going strong more than 30 years after those warm, hummable hits she recorded in the 1960s.

It's a shame she doesn't have better material with which to work.