Downtown Petula Clark Finds Magic in Haunted Musical "Sunset Boulevard"
by Jim Seavor
The Providence Journal
March 25, 1999

There's an almost-50-year-old ghost haunting the musical version of 'Sunset Boulevard" now at the Providence Performing Arts Center. The classic Billy Wilder film on which the play is based has become so much a part of our culture that it hovers over the proceedings, casting a long shadow.

Even though many in the audience will not have seen the film, we're familiar with that final descent down the stairs, and into complete madness, made by former film great Norma Desmond. We know by heart such lines as "I am big. It was the pictures that got small." and "I'm ready for my closeup, Mr. DeMille."

But the stage is not a screen and while the musical is, perhaps, almost too faithful to Wilder's film, there are differences. The dark cynicism that fills the movie is missing, at least in this production. There is brightness where darkness might reign.

And while the proper mood eventually arrives and "Sunset Boulevard" regains its power, it takes a while getting there.

A reminder: The story revolves around Joe Gillis (Lewis Cleale), an out-of-work scriptwriter who finds himself in the mansion of Norma Desmond (Petula Clark). She once was the greatest of the great silent film stars. But times have changed and she is now a recluse dreaming of a triumphant return to the screen. Her only companion is Max (Allen Fitzpatrick), her butler, who shields her from anything and anyone who would make her face reality.

Joe gets drawn into the web and eventually trapped, even as he is becoming involved with a reader and scriptwriter wannabe at Paramount. That relationship leads to tragedy.

Petula Clark's approach to Norma Desmond, like the show itself, takes a while to develop. It doesn't help that her first song, "Surrender," is sung to a dead chimpanzee while she cradles the animal in her arms. The audience wasn't ready for that. Nor was it ready when she first declared her love for Joe, the revelation got some laughs.

But in the scene where Norma returns to the Paramount lot to meet with DeMille and a member of the crew finds her with the spotlight and the music swells, the magic is there. And at the end, as Norma makes her long, last descent down the giant staircase, "Sunset Boulevard" lives as she surrenders to the truth.

Cleale remains pretty much a cypher as Joe Gillis. He captures the bitterness in the title song, but tends to fade into the background at other times. Sarah Uriarte Berry is an attractive Betty Scheafer, the young woman Joe works with on developing a script " and a relationship.

Allen Fitzpatrick's Max captures the style perfectly. Stern and ramrod-stiff, he manages to convey not only authority, but his love for Norma.

The score for Sunset Boulevard is not one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's strongest. Actually, workmanlike is a more accurate description, though there are songs that briefly get your attention: "As If We Never Said Goodbye," which Norma sings on her return to Paramount , and "Too Much In Love To Care," sung by Joe and Betty on a tour of the studio's backlot.

The script and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton rely heavily on the film, taking lines directly from it and incorporating some into the lyrics, as well as using them in dialogue. But they also shatter the mood at times. The play, like the film, begins with a body found in a swimming pool. But the musical quickly shifts to a shrill musical number instead of maintaining the opening mood.

The sets by Derek McLane work well, although the drapes that frame the Desmond living room look as if they cut into sightlines from some seats. The costumes by Anthony Powell are on target and provide a fashion show for Clark as she repeatedly makes her entrances in yet another glittering gown.

This Sunset Boulevard never limps along. But it is one of those shows that simply exists, often not quite rising to the occasion, while at other times reaching for the stars.

Often missing is that energy, physical and emotional, needed to raise it into the stratosphere.