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Stage Review: 'Sunset Boulevard' blends movie myth, dark musical romance

Wednesday, December 02, 1998

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

The last of the musical theater dinosaurs rumbled into town last night, but there have been changes in the valley of the mammoths. Flexibility is in. Fluidity. Dinosaur diet must be low-cal these days, because Andrew Lloyd Webber's last giant, "Sunset Boulevard," has never looked so trim.

    'Sunset Boulevard'

Where: Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 8 p.m. through Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $34-$49.50; 412-456-6666.


The purple strains of regret still predominate in the lush musical score, and glamour and opulence are still hinted at in the draperies and oak of the decor, but this "Sunset Boulevard" is built to move -- literally and figuratively.

Sometimes the best myths are those we invent ourselves. We can see right through them, but they still focus our dreams and give us back the thrill of dark reality with which we invested them in the first place. Hollywood, the great sargasso sea of imagination and longing, is just such a cluster of myths.

And Norma Desmond, the archetypal silent screen idol facing sudden mortality, is just such an emblem of dreams crashing down on hard truths. She's as potent a myth as Marilyn Monroe -- another invented image created by all of us who feast on fantasy wrapped in human frailty.

So in her new staging of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "musical noir," which inaugurates its national tour this week at the Benedum for the Broadway Series, director Susan Schulman has shrewdly decided to make Hollywood the true hero of the story. That was always in Don Black and Christopher Hampton's words, but Schulman has made it the defining visual metaphor, as well.

Everything on stage reads "movies," from the drops with visible labels to the film studio lights and props evident everywhere. Scenes merge with the fluidity of a dollied camera shot, drops (some very witty) turn transparent and actors move prop pieces into place even as dialogue begins. The underscore cooperates, bathing the evening in a movie music glow.

Movie and play are simultaneous, intertwined just as Norma's life is inseparable from the screen fantasies that are her true reality.

This is the greatest change wrought by Schulman and her creative staff, primarily designer Derek McLane and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. The order of the songs and scenes is the same as in the "Sunset Boulevard" many of us saw in London or on Broadway, but that was heavier in every way. Its chief mode was a lugubrious -- but often thrilling -- melodrama. Now it's a brisker tale, funnier, making a virtue of self-invention. After all, film noir is melodrama with a wink.

Petula Clark's Norma Desmond matches that change, at least as compared with the brilliant gothic gargoyle of Glenn Close or the more tremulous poignance of Betty Buckley. Clark is more real, less dotty, more comically manipulative. Her vulnerability is in her eyes, not her body, and is most obvious in her unsteady accent, just like a movie star whose broad A's crack to reveal the hometown vowels within.

"Sunset" is as much Joe Gillis' story as hers. Lewis Cleale has the stage magnetism he needs to survive having to watch much of his own story, but he also features wry understatement, not the brooding cynicism the role could support. His self-contempt, when it erupts, is the more powerful for emerging from this lower base.

Joe serves as our narrator much of the time, adding a hard-boiled jauntiness that responds to the film noir quality in Lloyd Webber's moaning score. The yearning decadence of its Norma theme is still magnificent, still accompanied by misty lighting for her mansion, but now the lighter material feels more at home -- the parallel comic songs of Joe's and Norma's makeovers, for example.

Schulman and Marshall are at their best in Joe's Act 2 love scene with young Betty (the vivid Sarah Uriarte Berry). The sound stage becomes their playground as they use a camera dolly, alter background effects and create a wonderful spotlight cone of phony snow to celebrate their love. Joe's dance scene with Norma also has a welcome freshness and sympathy.

Led by Clark, who has the most ornate vocal load, all the principals do justice to the vocal challenges. Allen Fitzpatrick's Max has a powerful voice, though I don't feel the suppressed emotional power.

The ensemble works very hard in this show, never a traditional musical chorus but playing a zillion roles with precision, creating the Hollywood dream factory in all its insincerity and hopefulness.

"The End" the final drop reads. Was it real or was it a movie? Life or myth? Entertaining, certainly, with themes to ponder.

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