It used to be that when you went to see a touring production of a Broadway show, you could be assured that said show would be a close representation of the show that recently played on Broadway or was still running. The sets and staging may be modified slightly, but essentially it would be an almost identical re-creation of what you would see in New York. My, have times changed! In the past few weeks, two shows have come to Seattle which I loathed in their original form, but have been greatly improved for their touring versions. The first of these was Jekyll and Hyde two weeks ago, and now playing at the same theater is the second, Sunset Boulevard.
Sunset Boulevard is, of course, Andrew Lloyd Webber's adaptation of the Billy Wilder classic 1950 film of the same name. It tells the tale of a legendary, but now largely forgotten, silent film star and the struggling writer whom she enlists to help her achieve her big return (not a comeback) to the silver screen.
I saw Sunset Boulevard in Vancouver with Diahann Carroll and was underwhelmed. She was completely wrong in the part and played it smaller than life (like a 10 year old girl) instead of the larger than life diva that is needed in order to make you forget all the holes in what is one of Andrew Lloyd Webber's weaker shows. The set took over the show, and the staging was incredibly slow (probably to give the set time to fly and do its tricks). Basically, I felt that the original production tried too hard to re-create the original film. By being too literal in its re-creation of a classic which is readily available on TV and videotape, it only served to point out the flaws in the adaptation, as well as in the original story. Since the majority of things that I didn't like about the original production (i.e. star, set and staging) were changed for the touring production, I was looking forward to seeing it again.
The main reason I was interested in seeing the revamped version is to see what director Susan Schulman would do with it. I have enjoyed every show that I have seen Susan Schulman direct (the recent Sound of Music revival and the incredible productions of The Secret Garden and Violet) and I am pleased to say that she does not disappoint in Sunset Boulevard. The show is vastly improved. The pace is faster and more even in its flow and tempo. The script has been tightened, and a lot of the annoying recitative has been turned into spoken dialogue. The show has a greater 'Hollywood' feel, as it is set on a sound stage and she employs a variety of Hollywood 'tricks' throughout the show; some for hilarious effect (Joe's car chase being one of the campiest things ever seen on stage), and some for great emotional effect (the vastly improved "Too Much in Love to Care," which now has Joe and Betty romping on the back lot re-creating every cliched movie love scene). The set has been toned down and no longer overwhelms the show, becoming the central character. It's still grand, and Norma's house still gets a round of applause, but that's due to the incredible transformation the stage goes through; from bare sound stage to richly furnished palazzo (and yes, it still has a beautiful staircase).
The backbone of Sunset Boulevard is its Norma Desmond, and Petula Clark does not disappoint. Petula, who played Norma in London from 1995 to 1997 (and thus is the only actress to play both versions), is brilliant in the role. Her Norma does not start out as a crazed and over the top stereotype. Instead, Petula creates a believable character; an older, tougher, no-nonsense woman who is used to getting what she wants, and uses all her acting tricks to get it. She also has found a great deal of humor in the part, which makes Norma's decent into madness all the more touching and shocking.
Lewis Cleale, seen on Broadway in Once Upon a Mattress and Swinging on a Star, made a very believable Joe Gillis. His is not a lovable Joe, but is someone who has been chewed up by the Hollywood machine and has reached the end of his rope; now his only choices are to find a new mooring or hang himself. He was not the poseur or 'pretty-boy' that previous Joes have been, which made him much more believable as a down-and-out writer. Norma and Joe's relationship is much more believable now, as they are played as two desperate people clinging to each other in mutual need.
Allen Fitzpatrick, last on Broadway in the original Scarlet Pimpernel, does an incredible job as Max. He found the humanity in the part, and was able to flesh Max out further than the script (or even the film) would suggest possible. He also has an incredible voice and pulled off the most thankless songs in the show.
The ensemble is great, and the show is now very enjoyable. Mind you, it is still not a masterpiece. The songs feel like what they are; recycled works from every decade so there is no sense of musical continuity. The lyrics in the recitative are still painful at times, and seem written by somebody who has never visited a sound stage. But, between the strong actors and the improved staging, these flaws are forgotten during the length of the show. Sunset Boulevard the musical is now almost as enjoyable as Sunset Boulevard the movie, and has become something that can be seen in its own right, rather than as a slavish recreation of the film.
Sunset Boulevard runs at The Paramount Theatre through August 15, 1999. For tickets, contact Ticketmaster or go to the box office at 911 Pine Street.