Stage Notes

By ROBERT TRUSSELL - The Kansas City Star
Date: 01/02/99 22:15

The touring production of "Sunset Boulevard," a musical adaptation of the classic Billy Wilder film opening Tuesday at the Music Hall, is not just another Theater League presentation.

This is something different -- a national tour with reputable artists in which the local nonprofit presenting organization has actually invested some of its own cash. (No, this is not one of those non-Equity shows the league has occasionally slipped past its subscribers).

"Sunset Boulevard" is, of course, the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber (and his collaborators, playwright Christopher Hampton and lyricist Don Black), and it has had its ups and downs. It took the 1995 Tony Award for Best Musical, but its initial tour didn't last long. Happily, the current production enjoys certain advantages the previous tour did not -- namely, a recognizable star.

Petula Clark, the former British pop sensation who has matured into a 60-something stage actress, plays the central role of Norma Desmond, a delusional former silent-screen star, and has received positive notices. Clark played the role in London. (The role of Norma was originated by Patti Lupone in the West End and played by Glenn Close on Broadway).

Theater League's investment won't break the bank. It comes to about $35,000, according to league president Mark Edelman.

"This is our second go-round with `Sunset,' " a huffing-puffing Edelman said as he worked out on a Stairmaster in a Los Angeles gym. "The original tour, the sort of no-star tour, was planned and ... we were in a consortium of other presenters who loaned the Really Useful Company (Lloyd Webber's producing organization) the money to do this."

The idea was that those presenters who put up money would be guaranteed a booking of the show. Edelman said the league got its money back after the first tour died without making it this far, and he said he had no qualms about investing a second time.

"When the opportunity arose again we said, `Yes, we'd like the show to come to Kansas City, but let's not make the same mistake again,' " Edelman said. "So he (Lloyd Webber) approved Petula Clark, who had done the show in the West End."

In the ensemble is Don Richard, a former Kansas City actor who was seen in plays and musicals here for several years. Edelman said Richard's presence was unplanned but he was glad that local audiences would be able to see one of their own in a national tour.

According to Edelman, the league's modest investment of $35,000 contributed to an initial capitalization of about $6 million. The current tour was able to take advantage of some of the work done for the first outing, including $1.5 million worth of costumes.

Edelman said he was considering asking the league's board to invest in "Jane Eyre," a show that was first performed in Wichita and later in Toronto but has yet to make it to New York. (Richard, coincidentally, appeared in the Wichita and Toronto versions.)

Over the years, Theater League has financed workshop productions of musicals in development, and Edelman said he was always on the lookout for promising material to get involved in.

"Sunset Boulevard," however, represents an actual investment.

"If `Sunset' is a big hit on the road we actually make money on our fund balance," Edelman said.

In addition to presenting shows in Kansas City, the league also has a presence in Phoenix; Tucson, Ariz.; Thousand Oaks and Long Beach in Southern California; and Toledo, Ohio.

Other news

The next speaker of the House appears to be no fan of the National Endowment for the Arts.

According to The Associated Press, the record of Illinois Republican J. Dennis Hastert has earned perfect scores from business and conservative groups and zeroes from organized labor and liberal interests.

That reflects, among other things, his opposition to federal funding for the arts.

Although he takes a conservative position on most major issues, Hastert is known as a legislator with a talent for brokering compromises among various competing interests.

At any rate, the arts endowment appears to be holding steady after weathering furious assaults in recent years from conservatives in the House and Senate, including U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft of Missouri and U.S. Rep. Todd Tiahrt of Wichita.

Hastert suddenly entered the spotlight after U.S. Rep. Bob Livingston withdrew his nomination for speaker following revelations of what he termed marital indiscretions.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic for The Star, call (816) 234-4765 or send e-mail to rtrussell@kcstar.com