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Theater Review

Cruising Along 'Sunset'

The scale is smaller, but this staging better serves the musical's story. Petula Clark lends true star power.

July 22, 1999|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

In "Sunset Boulevard," Norma Desmond proudly declares that she's still a big star--"It's the pictures that got small."

It's a line that also applies to the latest touring version of "Sunset Boulevard," now at Orange County Performing Arts Center. Petula Clark, in the starring role, exudes the charisma of a big star, but the "pictures" in Susan H. Schulman's new staging "got small." The scale of the show is considerably reduced from the original's. Which isn't bad; in fact, the set is less distracting and therefore serves the story better.

How different from the priorities that governed the first, ill-fated "Sunset Boulevard" tour, which collapsed before reaching Costa Mesa. In that version of this show about a character who claims to be "the greatest star," there was no star. Norma was played by Linda Balgord, who wasn't famous enough to attract big crowds. Yet the set was still massive--and expensive to schlep. The producers seemed to have swallowed the line that the original, spectacular set was this show's main attraction.

But the show's calling card should be its tantalizing story, originally seen in Billy Wilder's celebrated movie. For sheer narrative power, "Sunset" is more gripping than any of the other Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. Yet it requires a star. And in Clark, it's got not only a star, but one who hasn't been much in the American limelight recently--like Norma. However, unlike Norma, Clark remains a dazzling performer.

The main gripe against the stage version was that it softened the story, that it made Norma's greedy attraction to young screenwriter Joe Gillis warmer, less cutting. Those who felt this way are not likely to be any happier with Clark, who is somewhat spunkier and less intimidating than Glenn Close, who played the role in the U.S. premiere in Los Angeles.

Still, it's possible to take delight in Clark's masterfully sung Norma without necessarily rooting for Norma's manipulative machinations. There is something to be said for making a character both warmly accessible and awful. Clark, with her sudden changes in the tone of her speaking voice from alluring to acerbic to domineering, pulls it off. And her singing voice has retained its lilting grace.

Lewis Cleale's Joe also has a dynamic voice, and his look is the hunkiest ever seen in this role. In his rendition of the ungainly title number, he emerges from the swimming pool in a black swimsuit, and Norma fondles his bare chest, making their sexual relationship more explicit than before. Though young, Cleale makes Joe's hard-boiled cynicism persuasive.

It's the look of Derek McLane's set that will most surprise previous "Sunset" viewers. Gone is the levitating mansion, replaced by a more conventional grand staircase and plenty of drapery. The scene in which we see both Norma and Joe in separate locations on New Year's Eve still comes off without a hitch; Schulman placed Joe's party up front, and we see Norma pining for Joe through a scrim. In the opening scene, we see the edge of a pool and the suggestion of a shimmering reflection, but we don't glimpse Joe's body underwater.

The design isn't just a matter of trims. By framing most of the stage pictures with images from movie technology, Schulman and McLane introduce the notion that all of what we see is part of a movie. They apply this idea lightly, never taking it to the point that it might confuse, but it does help intellectually justify some of the melodrama, especially near the end. The playing around with movie imagery is at its brightest in the winsome love duet between Joe and his writing partner Betty (Sarah Uriarte Berry).

Norma's tour de force on a sound stage, "As If We Never Said Goodbye," is transfixing, though still slightly spoiled by its closing rehash of the script's most overused line: "We taught the world new ways to dream." Still, Schulman has shown us new ways to imagine "Sunset Boulevard," and it's hard to take your eyes off her vision.

* "Sunset Boulevard," Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tonight-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $21-$52.50. (714) 740-7878; (213) 365-3500. Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes. San Diego Civic Theatre, 3rd and B streets, Tuesday-next Thursday, 7:30 p.m. July 30, 8 p.m.; July 31, 2 and 8 p.m.; Aug. 1, 1:30 and 6:30 p.m., $24-$60. (619) 570-1100. Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Oct. 5-9, 8 p.m.; Oct. 10, 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 9-10, 2 p.m. $32-$57. (213) 365-3500.

Petula Clark: Norma Desmond

Lewis Cleale: Joe Gillis

Allen Fitzpatrick: Max von Mayerling

Sarah Uriarte Berry: Betty Schaefer

Michael Berry: Artie Green

George Merner: Cecil B. De Mille

Rick Qualls: Manfred

Produced by Pace Theatrical Group and Columbia Artists Management. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, based on the Billy Wilder film. Directed by Susan H. Schulman. Set by Derek McLane. Costumes by Anthony Powell. Lighting by Peter Kaczorowski. Sound by Tony Meola. Projections by Wendall K. Harrington. Choreographer Kathleen Marshall. Orchestrations by David Cullen and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Music director Michael Rafter. Casting by Jay Binder. Production stage manager David Foster.

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