'Sunset Boulevard' Ready for Its Close-up

by Peter Filichia
Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger, 2/4/99
By all rights, the new roof on the New Jersey Performing Arts Center should have been blown skyward on Tuesday night, when Petula Clark opened "Sunset Boulevard" in Prudential Hall. The rivets held, but the singer still shook the rafters.

Clark plays Norma Desmond, the long-forgotten silent screen star who steadfastly believes that she's going to make a return to the screen. In the first act, when Norma sings about the tricks of her trade in "With One Look," Clark beautifully maneuvered the soaring Andrew Lloyd Webber melody. If her last note didn't threaten the roof, the applause from the appreciative crowd did.

That, however, was just a warm- up for Norma's big second-act aria, when she revisits the studio where she once reigned. It's "As If We Never Said Goodbye," she sings, getting progressively more excited to "come home at last." It's a dynamic piece of material, and Clark delivered it as confidently and securely as any of the divas who ever sang it on Broadway or in London. She was rewarded with a rash of screams from the audience, who loved seeing the "Downtown" singer in downtown Newark

Lewis Cleale is excellent as Joe, especially in his delivery of the title song, which also hit the rooftop. As Betty, the screenwriter he comes to love, Sarah Uriarte Berry is both lovely and worldly wise not an easy combination to portray. Allen Fitzpatrick gives Max the requisite dignity, and George Merner is a sympathetic Cecil B. DeMille.

Susan H. Schulman has directed the show much more briskly than Trevor Nunn did in New York, and has added some strong touches. Norma now sensuously rubs suntan lotion on Joe's almost naked body. A syrupy love song between Joe and Betty has been restaged so that the pair purposely parodies Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.

Of course a touring production can't be expected to hydraulically float Norma's mansion, as was done on Broadway, but there are still plenty of enormous sets, making "Sunset Boulevard" the first musical to genuinely fill the vast Prudential Hall stage. ...