In This ‘Boulevard,' It Was the Sets That Got Small

by Misha Berson Seattle Times
August 5, 1999

That washed-up silent-screen star Norma Desmond is back once again, pawing and ensnaring a young squeeze and demanding her big close-up.

You can drink in the quintessential Norma D. of Gloria Swanson any time, via Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film,"Sunset Boulevard."

But a live Norma has arrived at Paramount Theatre, courtesy of the 1993 stage musical,"Sunset Boulevard," making its belated Seattle debut in a tour that stars British singer-actress, Petula Clark.

This Andrew Lloyd Webber tuner is over-wrought, but can be shamefully seductive. The new road version suffers in comparison, though, to the Broadway mounting with Glenn Close as Norma and the Vancouver, B.C., run with Diahann Carroll.

Left intact is Andrew Lloyd Webber's high-cholesterol score (well played under conductor Lawrence Goldberg), which stretches several catchy melodic motifs over an entire evening.

The book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black work harder to capture the film's glossy decadence and slippery tone, through the story of the doomed love affair between the opportunistic screenwriter Joe (Lewis Cleale), and the grasping, deluded Norma. It's a gothic romance and a wicked satire of Hollywood at its most narcissistic and mercenary.

Lloyd Webber's score pumps the romance, in such string-drenched odes as Norma's paean to herself, "With One Look," and "The Greatest Star of All," sung by the devoted Teutonic butler, Max (Allen Fitzpatrick)

Scaled way down in this version, however, is John Napier's grandiose original set. In Derek McLane's more portable new design, the great rococo staircase in Norma's mansion is much reduced, as is her important pool. And the flashy hydraulic stuntwork is replaced by simple scrim effects.

It's a smart economic move: The behemoth Napier design helped make "Sunset Boulevard" one of the most expensive Broadway musicals ever, and a rare financial flop for Lloyd Webber. And Peter Kaczorowski takes up some of the slack with his lighting. But I have to admit the bells and whistles are missed – at least, they were in last night's technically ragged performance.

Sarah K. Schulman's direction keeps the story flowing and inserts witty jabs at Tinsel Town falsity not in Trevor Nunn's initial staging.

But the exaggerated tilt of Clark's Norma is a let-down.

The best news about Clark is her vocal firepower: She sings those soaring arias full-out, which is hard. But her red-frizzed, painted-up, often shrewish Norma has so many dotty mannerisms, she seems ready for a padded cell long before she's ready for that close-up.

Norma is on thin ice mentally when first seen crooning a lullaby ("Surrender") to her dead pet chimp. It's essential though, that she still exude enough grandeur and vestigial allure to inspire that fatal flash of pity and lust in Joe.

As the sardonic nice-guy-soured, Cleale sings powerfully, looks good and plays Joe square-on. Sarah Uriarte Berry charms as his more wholesome paramour, Betty. And though Fitzpatrick barks Max's lines too predictably, he sings the role beautifully.

Another original aspect of "Sunset Boulevard" happily survives, by the way: Anthony Powell's opulent costuming. Norma's turbans, her beaded caftans, her faux-fox furs are still to die for, and Clark wears them well.