To paraphrase Robert Frost, the road less traveled is often the wisest route to take. Relating this sentiment to the theatre has never been a difficult task, with experimentalists such as Julie Taymor and Guy Laliberte (of Cirque du Soleil) thriving on stage. While not what you would call "experimental," the reimagined tour of Sunset Boulevard shows just what a new perspective can do to help (or hurt) a production.
Director Susan Schulman has gutted Boulevard from top to bottom, and her good intentions are evident in the handsome, polished production that has emerged from its former self. Scrapping divine opulence for a more economical elegance, Schulman has given Sunset a lighter touch all over. By doing so, the show has gained a sense of humor and compassion that had been previously suppressed, but at the same time I can't help but feeling that it has lost touch with the brooding, gothic tragedy that lies at the heart of its story. The entire mood of the piece has been shifted to a "friendlier" version, which irks me terribly; but, all comparisons aside, the show actually works nicely in its current form.
Billy Wilder's classic 1950 film first introduced the story of Joe Gillis, a down and out screenwriter who begins a tumultuous relationship with an eccentric, faded film star, Norma Desmond. During Sunset's first musical incarnation, Norma was played by a host of the entertainment world's finest, including Glenn Close, Patti Lupone, Elaine Paige, Betty Buckley, Linda Balgord, Diahann Carroll, and Petula Clark, just to name a few.
For the new tour, pop star Petula Clark reprises the role, one that she played for an admirable 18 months on London's West End. Within her first few minutes on stage, it is easy to see that Clark has taken an entirely new road with the character. Sporting a quirky, American accent and a noticeable spring in her step, Petula transmits Norma as being almost normal, perhaps just spoiled and eccentric. And, where Petula lacks in overall vocal oomph, she more than makes up for in stamina. It is easy to see how such a talented, versatile performer has survived over half a century in the biz.
Lewis Cleale, last seen on Broadway in Swinging on a Star, takes on the role of Joe and brings a new side out in this character as well. It is truly surprising how much humor Cleale brings out in the show. However, his lower range seemed to be acting up during the performance I attended, and he had to wade through some parts rather carefully.
From the supporting cast, George Merner and Allen Fitzpatrick both do good as Cecil B. Demille and Norma's devoted attendant, Max, respectively. Playing Joe's other love interest, Betty Schaefer, is Sarah Uriarte Berry, who carries the role nicely.
With the gargantuan, albeit extraordinary, sets out of the picture, designer Derek McLane was enlisted to rebuild Norma Desmond's world from the ground up. His new creations are refreshing and quite intriguing, making heavy use of scrims, projections, and fabrics. To account for the smaller mansion, McLane uses heavy drapes and portieres to fill the void, creating a dark, almost creepy atmosphere in Norma's lair, which is only enhanced by Peter Kaczorowski's wonderful, noir lighting. Thankfully, the gorgeous costumes by Anthony Powell have been retained from the London production. Making use of any and everything that shimmers, Powell creates a never-ending parade of exquisite clothing for Norma, and the rest of the cast is treated with its own set of attractive garments.
PACE Theatrical Group and Columbia Artists Management Inc., in association with John B. Platt, present Sunset Boulevard, directed by Susan H. Schulman. Starring Petula Clark. Co-starring Lewis Cleale, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Allen Fitzpatrick, Michael Berry, and George Merner. Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton. Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Cullen. Based on the Billy Wilder film.