'Sunset Boulevard' ready for a close-up / Lloyd Webber show trimmed for touring

Richmond Times-Dispatch review, 12/10/98
     "Sunset Boulevard" is the 1950 movie that unleashed such campily immortal Norma Desmond lines as "We had faces" and "I am big, it's the pictures that got small" and that mad-scene clincher, "I'm ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille."
     It's also the pop opera Andrew Lloyd Webber based on that Billy Wilder film about the tortured relationship Norma, a former silent-movie queen who doesn't realize she's washed up, and Joe Gillis, the young screenwriter who takes refuge from creditors in her palazzo driveway and ends up her ill-fated gigolo. Lloyd Webber's megabucks "Sunset Boulevard" arrived on both sides of the Atlantic with much hoopla in the early '90s, only to be aborted in London's West End, on Broadway and on tour several years later because it was losing megabucks as well. The tour now at Richmond's Landmark Theatre is an obvious attempt to put the show, which I did not see in its original form, on a more realistic financial footing and to make it more palatable to more theatergoers. Much of the dialogue that was sung in the original -- and widely criticized as pedestrian -- is now spoken, for example.
     The elaborate hydraulic system that caused Norma's secluded Hollywood palazzo to seem to float on Broadway is gone, but no one is likely to complain that the tour at the Landmark was designed on the cheap.
     Petula Clark, as Norma, is still swathed in the outrageous -- and outrageously spectacular -- Anthony Powell gowns and turbans she wore the final two years of the London run. The new scenic designer, Derek McLane, has provided enough scrims, flying scenery, floating elements, projections and other effects to serve half a dozen ordinary musicals. Norma's drapery-swathed living room centered on an immensely ornate staircase is a show in itself. And it's all lighted to a fare-thee-well by Peter Kaczorowski. His hot pinks lend a special magic to the scene in which Norma thinks she's returning to her old Paramount Pictures lot in triumph, only to learn later that Paramount wanted her old luxury car, not her.
     So how does it work?
     If you want an emotional thrill ride of the sort Lloyd Webber's "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Evita" and "Cats" provide, look elsewhere. Musically, "Sunset Boulevard" has its moments, but some of it seems uncomfortable derivative -- the stylish "The Lady's Paying" easily could be a reject from "Evita" -- and none of it rises to the unforgettable heights scaled by "I Don't Know How To Love Him," "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" and "Memory" in Lloyd Webber's greater shows. Clark plays Norma with great assurance, but not monstrously. She conveys Norma's immense narcissism, but also her immense loneliness. Her need for a guy like Joe is real and heart-rending. Lewis Cleale's Joe may be weak, but he's engaging and far from being an opportunist. Under other circumstances -- if Norma weren't poised on the edge of madness, for example -- it's not difficult to see how he and Norma might sustain a constructive relationship.
     Clark's Norma and Cleale's Joe are both vulnerable, and both sing their hearts out to great effect. Time has been kind to Clark's 66-year-old voice, and Cleale's wide-ranging theater voice is particularly pleasing in its upper range.
     The vocal honors of the evening, however, go to Allen Fitzpatrick as Max, the mysterious butler who guards Norma and has a secret to divulge late in the 2-hour evening. Fitzpatrick's rich voice does Max's emotional bidding splendidly.
     The other three principals -- Sarah Uriarte Berry as Joe's young off-and-on girlfriend, Michael Berry as her other boyfriend and George Merner as Cecil B. DeMille -- acquit themselves well in roles that seem both underdeveloped and thankless. Susan H. Schulman's staging is resourceful and inventive, but ultimately can't turn this musical into the Lloyd Webber powerhouse it isn't.