Touring Production Is Kinder, Gentler `Sunset Boulevard'
by James D. Watts Jr.
Tulsa World

November 25, 1999



It's one of the more famous exchanges in film history: the down-on-his-luck writer Joe Gillis realizing just who owns the crumbling palace in which he finds himself.

"You're Norma Desmond," he says. "You used to be in pictures. You used to be big."

The begowned, turban-wearing lady of the house responds: "I am big. It's the pictures that got small." In the classic Billy Wilder film "Sunset Boulevard," Norma's rejoiner evokes a nervous chuckle the automatic response when you're suddenly confronted by someone who just might be insane.

In the Broadway touring production of "Sunset Boulevard," the scene is played for a different, purer sort of laugh the incongruity of the petite Petula Clark as Norma Desmond glaring up at Lewis Cleale's Joe Gillis, who's about a foot taller.

That neatly sums up the main difference between the 1950 film noir, and director Susan H. Schulman's re-imaging of the 1994 Andrew Lloyd Webber musical version of this story. The touring production, which opened Tuesday at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center as part of Celebrity Attractions' "Give Your Regards to Broadway" series, is a kinder, gentler "Sunset Boulevard."

It's still not what you'd call a happy tale, as it deals with the lengths and depths to which people will go to preserve the fragile illusions they use to keep reality at bay. But the darkness at the heart of this story has been dissipated slightly in this new production, due in large part to a couple of finely nuanced performances.

Otherwise, the book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton do an excellent job of translating the film to the stage, from the opening moment when a body is discovered in the swimming pool on Norma Desmond's estate (handled with a surprisingly effective, if stylized, bit of lighting) to Norma's final declaration that she's "ready for her close-up."

In between you have the story of Joe, an aspiring screenwriter whose career is on its last legs. Studio executives keep rejecting his stories, repo men are after his car and he's just a few dollars away from giving up his Hollywood dream and slinking back to Dayton, Ohio. Then, as he's trying to flee the finance company goons, he swerves into a driveway and finds himself in the hermetically sealed world of Norma Desmond

Norma was one of the greats of the silent movie era, one of those actresses who "didn't need words we had faces." And she has big plans a return to glory in a film that she's written and in which she will play the lead, based on the vaguely biblical story of Salome. She convinces Joe to stay and help her get her voluminous script in shape to present to Cecil B. deMille. Joe, who realizes a cushy deal when he sees it, agrees even though his interest in Betty Schaefer (Sarah Uriarte Berry) is evolving from dislike to a writing partnership to love. Watching over the potentially explosive situation is Norma's stern, seemingly clairvoyant servant, Max (Allen Fitzpatrick).

As for those two performances . . . The first, obviously, is Clark's; her Norma is radically different from the brittle, predatory monster Gloria Swanson created. Clark's characterization hints at all sort of depths to Norma: the incipient madness is there in the way Norma can swing from coquettish dithering to vicious bullying; the reasons why her career stalled when movies started talking is revealed in the occasional flat, Midwestern twang that seeps into Norma's voice when under stress; her single-mindedness about her comeback is shown in the way that she shows no real romantic interest in Joe until that fateful New Year's Eve dance.

And of course, the lady can sing. She fills the show's signature songs, "With One Look" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye," with powerful, yet understated emotion. But her best moment may be the heartbreaking way she delivers "New Ways to Dream," as Norma tries to relive her youth through acting out her old movies.

The other is that of Fitzpatrick as Max, who makes you forget Erich von Stroheim's portrayal in the film. His deliberate way of moving and speaking give the sense of a man struggling to maintain some kind of dignity under a crushing burden, while the ecstatic high notes he reaches in "The Greatest Star of All" and the reprise of "New Ways to Dream" reveal the depth of his feeling for the person who placed that burden upon him. It's a magical bit of acting.

Cleale is good as Gillis, although he comes across as merely callow when Gillis should be harder, more cynical, more bitterly wise about the world. His voice also could be a little stronger, possess a broader array of colors. Fortunately, the rhythmically tricky title song suits his voice well and he performs it with gusto, whether prancing about in swim trunks or lurching about in a drunken rage. Berry's portrayal of Schaefer is all girlish determination, which works well in her duets with Cleale on "Girl Meets Boy."

This is not Webber's most lavish score, but it is perhaps his most focused, mirroring the obsessions of his characters in the way that motifs from the songs "Sunset Boulevard," "The Perfect Year" and "New Ways to Dream" keep recurring to underscore or undercut the mood of a given scene, to put a new twist on a line of dialogue.

Derek McLane's scenic design is marvelously evocative, reinforcing the sense of illusion that permeates this story by treating many scenes as if they were being staged for a film shoot (Joe's getaway from the repo men, the makeover he gets when "The Lady Is Paying," the poolside scenes that open and close the show).

"Sunset Boulevard" continues with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are still available; call 596-7111 for information. James D. Watts, World entertainment writer, can be reached at 581-8478 or via e-mail at james.watts@tulsaworld.com