‘Sunset’ Scenery Doesn’t Steal Show, But Stars Almost Do
by Lawrence Toppman Charlotte Observer
June 24, 1999



When Ludwig Mies van der Rohe declared, "Less is more," he was talking about architecture. But he could have been discussing musical theater, and the proof has rolled into North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.

On Broadway, "Sunset Boulevard" was about a set: the mansion of Norma Desmond, a silent-movie star who believes screenwriter Joe Gillis will mastermind her comeback after 20-plus years. The audience gasped as her spooky home soared into the air to admit another set underneath: For all of Glenn Close's authority as Norma, she seemed a proud bluejay strutting around on the back of an elephant.

The version that reached Belk Theater Tuesday night is about a man and a woman locked in a mutually destructive relationship. Librettists Don Black and Christopher Hampton didn't create especially complex characters when adapting the 1950 movie, but whatever humanity these people have comes through more clearly when we're not goggling at the scenery.

Not that the set looks chintzy: Norma's ballroom still frightens and impresses, even on a reduced scale, and some effects (notably the death at the swimming pool) are handled cleverly in limited space. (On the other hand, three movable pillars full of props never suggest a Hollywood studio, and Hedy Lamarr's name is misspelled on the set of her own movie.)

Yet the show's sizzle comes from the unexpectedly funny Petula Clark (who played Norma for a year in London) and Lewis Cleale, a Joe filled with ferocious contempt for himself and almost anyone else. "Sunset Boulevard" may be exaggerated as drama – so was Billy Wilder's classic movie – but it has a potent kick at the end.

So effective was the atmosphere that no one applauded when Clark first appeared. She's smaller than you'd expect and funnier: Until the mad scenes of act two, she uses Norma's diva-ish behavior to make Joe her unwilling audience. (Feigning a heart attack, she looked like Fred Sanford shouting, "It's the big one, 'Lizabeth! I'm a-comin to join ya!")

Clark plays Norma as a spoiled woman used to getting her way, like an imperious dowager aunt too rich to balk or contradict. Her pipes, still impressive after 55 years of singing, range from high notes that sound oddly girlish (in keeping with Norma's delusions of youth) to brassy low notes that belong in a waterfront dive.

Cleale matches her in force. His voice is more robust than either of the Joes on the original cast recordings, and the heavier singing goes with intense acting. His title number becomes a raging anthem of loathing, rather than just a way to settle the audience back into their seats after intermission.

Other cast members find extra complexity in their roles. Allen Fitzpatrick's Max is tender toward Norma, not merely a gloomy Teutonic butler. Sarah Uriarte Berry makes Betty, Joe's would-be writing partner, spunkier than I recall her being on Broadway. Rick Qualls briefly stands out amid a strong supporting cast as Manfred, fey haberdasher to the stars.