By Michael H. Margolin / Special to The Detroit News


    DETROIT -- Those who have seen the classic Billy Wilder film or any previous incarnation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical opus know all too well that Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond does not come to a happy ending.
    And, from the very first moments of the well-staged new touring version that opened Tuesday at the Detroit Opera House, we know that Joe Gillis, narrating the story, is also dead in the swimming pool. So it's only fill-in-the-blanks time.
    The musical follows the crisp outlines of Wilder's 1950 film, which starred Gloria Swanson as the reclusive Desmond, a silent film star feeding off her past. Plucky Petula Clark takes over in the current staging.
    Desmond's life is skeletal. Her appetite has devoured all around her except for Max, who was a director, made her a star, married her and stays on as butler in her Hollywood mansion.
    Gillis stumbles onto the grounds: fresh road kill. Norma is voracious, picking his brain as a screenwriter (not successful) in an epic about another failed woman: Salome. Joe becomes Norma's Lewinsky, until he succumbs to young, pretty Betty Schaeffer. He threatens to leave, and Norma shoots him.
    It's odd material for a musical. After all, the star protests that she doesn't need words in films; her face tells it all. The first act tells it all, at length, and doesn't catch fire. The second act soars with moments of musicality and theatricality, however.
    Lloyd Webber's score is not his brightest; some melodies are reworkings, especially of his Aspects of Love.
    Clark is an engaging Norma, and her voice retains astonishing freshness after a long career. (Everyone is heavily miked for fear the audience will miss a nuance.)
    Lewis Cleale is Joe the gigolo. He's handsome, moves well, sings well and is a convincing actor. Too bad there's no room under the title: Petula Clark's lettering uses up all the space.
    A mostly fine supporting cast works well. Joe's love interest is Sarah Uriarte Berry (Belle in Sleeping Beauty, recently at the Masonic Temple). We have to wait until Act II before she gets a song, and then it's a duet, but we are thankful for some gifts.
    As Max, general factotum, Allen Fitzpatrick overplays audaciously; it must have seemed right to director Susan Shulman, and the Tuesday audience responded enthusiastically at curtain calls, but the performance smacked of caricature.
    The production is handsome, well-lit, well-costumed; the series of numbers and scenes in Act II, though derivative, have some emotional lift: Clark and company deliver.
   
    Michael H. Margolin is a Detroit free-lance writer.
   
    Theater Review

'Sunset Boulevard'

    Detroit Opera House
    Through March 21
    Tickets $32.50-$65
    Call (248) 645-6666
    *** {Hearty cheers}