'Sunset Boulevard fails to grab genius of the original
by Karen D'Souza
Sacramento Bee

September 30, 1999

Sunset Boulevard is much more than a street. In many ways, it's the heart of the Hollywood myth, a symbol of that fantasyland where palm trees and dreams converge and a nobody can become a star overnight.

Billy Wilder named his 1950 film noir jewel after this tinseltown thoroughfare, where decadence, greed and glamour seem to ooze from the pavement.

As it happens, there is ample time to reflect on the genius of Wilder's movie, which starred Gloria Swanson, William Holden and Erich von Stroheim, while watching Andrew Lloyd Webber's sluggish stage adaptation. This mediocre musical melodrama launches the Broadway Series fall season with more style than substance. "Sunset Boulevard," the 1995 Tony-winner for best musical, is taking up residence at the Community Center Theater through Sunday.

Lloyd Webber, the theatrical impresario behind "Cats," "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "The Phantom of the Opera," probably intended to pay homage to the cinematic masterpiece. It's still a to-die-for story that zooms in on the love triangle between a decrepit diva, Norma Desmond, a down-and-out screenwriter named Joe and a skulking butler.

From the moment Norma enters the spotlight, making an entrance down a grand staircase, all eyes are upon her. Played by '60s pop icon Petula Clark, whose first appearance was applauded by the opening-night audience, Norma emerges as a fallen idol, a little girl trapped in an old woman's body. Once a legend of the silent screen, Norma has been forgotten in the age of talkies. These days only Max (Allen Fitzpatrick as the ominous butler) still worships her.

Clark, stepping into a role previously played by Glenn Close and Patti Lupone, sinks her teeth into Norma's campy sense of wit. Simultaneously a victim and a vamp, Norma has her sights set on a comeback.

"I am big," she says, spitting out one of the film's signature lines. "It's the pictures that got small."

Alas, this zinger marks the high point of the first act, which sinks under the weight of Lloyd Webber's bloated and repetitive score. Slow and shallow, the first half of the show cries out for an edit.

One ballad in particular, "New Ways To Dream," is revisited ad nauseam. Even Clark's sweet, soaring voice can only partially rescue this tune.

Not until after the intermission does this musical live up to its production values, which include a lavish set and gaudy costumes. Norma drapes herself in the most ludicrous creations - black turbans, silver lame and scarlet sashes - all designed to fool Joe about her age.

The truth is, of course, that she needn't have bothered. Joe (a deft turn by Lewis Cleale) needs a loan more than a lover. When he first drives his car, a nifty red number, into the driveway of Norma's ancient abode, he's already at the end of his tether. Out of work and out of hope, Joe is quite willing to sleep his way into the lap of luxury. After all, poverty and obscurity are the only real sins in Los Angeles.

Call it the ultimate L.A. love connection. He leeches money from her; she sucks the life out of him. Their perverse liaisons reach their climax in the macabre song "The Perfect Year."

In the end, however, Norma's true devotion remains to the lens. She chases her fantasies of a return to film by hunting down Cecil B. DeMille (a wooden George Merner) on his sound stage. In "As If We Never Said Goodbye," Norma once again feels the camera pan toward her. She basks in the glow of the spotlight as if the fluorescent glare were a beatific light.

One last time, the prima donna holds court amid the cameras and cardboard sets. The 60-something Clark makes the most of this show-stopping moment, which comes as a visceral relief from the mechanical homogeneity of the other ensemble interludes.

When Clark and Cleale are off stage, the production loses its focus, fading in and out of its nostalgic aesthetic. Despite some strong performances and some tart repartee, this "Sunset Boulevard" isn't ready for a close-up.