February 12, 1999

PETULA CLARK & SUNSET BOULEVARD

I must admit I was equally, if not more, fascinated with the many changes made to the national touring production of Sunset Boulevard than the actual musical, which I did enjoy quite a lot last Saturday evening at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, New Jersey. Credit director Susan H. Schulman and scenic designer Derek McLane for mounting a production that doesn't need the astounding multi-million dollar set created by John Napier for the original run. Norma's mansion does not rise as its awe-inspiring Broadway counterpart did, but it is still grand, consisting of a smaller set of stairs centerstage that move out from the back at the start of Norma's first scene. Similarly, long, flowing drapes emerge as do several set pieces (a couch, desk, ...) just before Norma's entrance. There are also three large wooden columns, filled with various props, that emerge and move around several times throughout the show.

Director Schulman has also added a few touches here and there, some of which make many of the non-Norma scenes work better than they did before, especially the New Year's party in Artie's apartment and the second-act ballad, "Too Much in Love To Care." In the latter scene, Betty Schaefer and Joe Gillis take full advantage of the props that might have been available to them on the backstage lot of Paramount Studios. They also employ some film effects, including falling snow, and the song concludes quietly rather than the big-ballad ending it was given on Broadway. In fact, it's the first time that song has ever moved me.

But, getting to the star of the show, that "Downtown" gal, Petula Clark . . . If Clark isn't as fine an actress as her London or Broadway predecessors, and not as thrilling as Buckley, LuPone or Paige, she does possess the requisite star quality and adds a campiness that is quite entertaining. She also possesses a distinctive voice that she unleashes to great effect, particularly in the second act "aria," "As If We Never Said Goodbye." And her co-star, Lewis Cleale, is perhaps the best Joe I've seen to date. He is commanding both physically and vocally, and delivers each line ? whether sung or spoken ? flawlessly. The Max of Allen Fitzpatrick is also quite good, and, as always, a ride down Sunset Boulevard is a highly entertaining trip.

I thought the legion of Sunset Boulevard fans would enjoy reading a few of the many other changes made to the touring production, so here goes!
  1. Only a small part of Norma's pool (jetting out from the side of the stage) is seen in the opening of the musical, while a projection of a man floating face down in the pool is projected on a scrim.
  2. Throughout the musical, Joe Gillis speaks several lines that were previously sung. For example, he speaks, "I guess it was 5 a.m. A homicide had been reported..." and doesn't begin singing until the lines, "Let me take you back six months." The only lines I missed being sung were those in the "New Ways to Dream" sequence. I had always found the singing of "she smelled of faded roses" quite moving.
  3. In Joe's meeting with Sheldrake in the first scene, Sheldrake asks, "Joe, what the heck brings you here?" rather than "Joe, what the f- ? brings you here?"
  4. In the car chase scene, which leads to Joe's arrival at Norma's mansion, a small amusement-park like red car emerges from the wings, and Joe is scene driving while a black-and-white film of another car chasing him is projected on the scrim behind him. Oddly, the car Joe drives is only half a car; that is, the hood of the car has been removed, so you can see Joe's entire body. It seems no one has yet solved the problem of staging the car chase scene realistically.
  5. Toward the end of "This Time Next Year," all the young performers/writers assemble on Artie's couch while Artie sets the automatic timer on his camera. The song ends just as the camera flashes a picture. (6) During the title song that opens the musical's second act, Joe is dressed in only a bathing suit, and delivers the song with just the bathing suit and a towel draped around his neck. (I had always wondered why Joe would wear a white suit while lounging by the pool.) Also, during the song, Norma enters for one stanza to caress his shoulders.
  6. Norma's car is not seen when she enters Paramount Studios. It's just a figure of half a car that is scene behind a scrim.
  7. During the intro to "As If We Never Said Goodbye" ? just after the spotlight shines on Norma ? only three or four people approach her to say hello, just older actors/stage workers who would have worked with her in her heyday. Only one young woman approaches, obviously enthralled to meet this former film star.
  8. During the phone call to Betty sequence, Norma stands on the staircase making the call. Rather than grabbing the phone from her, Joe picks up a different phone located on the desk in the living room.
  9. Just before Betty arrives for her final scene in Norma's mansion, Joe sees flashbacks (with other actors playing his role) to earlier scenes.
  10. In Norma's final mad scene, as she sings the reprise of "With One Look," several shots of her as a film star are projected behind her. And, as the curtain comes down, a black-and-white projection announcing, "The End" is shown.