Unsinkable Norma Desmond

Sunset Boulevard aspires to be caviar, though a fishy smell lingers in the air.

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The stripped-down bus-and-truck tour of Sunset Boulevard, Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical rape of Billy Wilder's sardonic tragedy of a former silent film star's grand dive into megalomania, takes theatergoers in the neighborhood of a woeful haunted house; the whole experience is permeated with ghostly memories and regrets.

The first regret is the ghost of a musical that might have been. Stephen Sondheim, the one composer/lyricist up to Wilder's platinum cynicism, started to compose a musical Sunset Boulevard, but, after meeting Wilder at a party, he was advised that, with its dethroned queen, it would have to be written as an opera. Even with the entreaties of renowned director Hal Prince and the promise of Angela Lansbury playing Norma Desmond as a former comedienne of the 1920s, Sondheim still demurred, due to his trepidation at writing an opera. Then came Andrew Lloyd Webber. ("I'm not saying he writes great music," Wilder said, "but he'll have at least one good song.")

In honor of Wilder, Webber exceeded expectations and produced three effective passion-fruit songs; he can be a potent alchemist of used materials. Extracting the melodramatic flourishes of Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, and Franz Waxman, he managed to meld them into a potent brand of toilet water, a sometimes-cloying scent, turning the film's satire into an overripe pastiche.

A couple of decades ago, Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat triumphed, partly due to their goofy grandeur. Thanks in part to Tim Rice's proudly gauche lyrics ("What's the buzz? Tell me what's a-happening"), they became the houndstooth coats of musicals--endearing kitsch.

Here, book and lyric writers Don Black and Christopher Hampton are not so adept. Caught in a bind, they were enslaved to a world-famous script. They tried desperately to do with Billy Wilder's film what Lerner and Loewe accomplished with Shaw's Pygmalion--transfer the film's cutting expose of Hollywood ruthlessness, frayed romantic grandeur, and narcissism that leads to insanity into lush, Phantom operatic grand passion.

At times, the creative trinity lifts this musical sarcophagus out of its mausoleum, as when the dolled-up Norma visits her old studio for a brief return to the spotlight. She sings "As If We Never Said Goodbye" like a triumphant Queen Esther. This is one of the few times that the film's grand pathos is musically and lyrically realized. Yet the majority of the show is a heavy-handed approximation. The droll satire, tawdry emotional blackmail, and biting Wilder voice emerge here more with the shallowness of a Mad magazine spoof than with Lerner and Loewe finesse.

In various theaters in major capitals, there has been a battalion of aging musical comedy stars in fright wigs, imitation fox furs, and Kabuki vampire makeup to render Gloria Swanson's fierce elegance into pop-eyed gargoyles to scare the tourists back to their buses.

On the present tour, Petula Clark--the essence of '60s "Downtown" pop star charisma and the luminous Colleen Charm of Finian's Rainbow and Goodbye, Mr. Chips--has been egregiously sinned against. Smothered like a partridge in unbecoming peacock frills and forced to sing a score that grates on her honeyed voice, Clark retaliates with a full-blown, wrongheaded performance. She turns this former silent grand lady into a tomboyish hoyden, who would be more likely making her comeback as Annie Oakley than as Salome. Hitting, rather than presenting, her kept man with a gold cigarette case, she's a tough Our Gang gal grown middle-aged, an Unsinkable Molly Brown paddling upstream in the wrong musical. It's a tribute to Clark's unshakable magnetism that, even in the wrong galaxy, she still manages to shine.

For her grand last fling, Lewis Cleale's Joe Gillis trades in William Holden's thinking man's machismo for Vegas chorus-boy blandness. Looking swell in a bathing suit, he seems better adapted for transporting Mitzi Gaynor across a nightclub floor. Striking the most memorable spark is Allan Fitzpatrick's recreation of Erich von Stroheim's ex-husband/butler's ghoulish loyalty.

Up to this underpopulated tour, underwhelmed audiences could at least go home whistling at the empty spectacle of John Naper's life-sized movable mansion set. Now, sans spectacle, they get a better view of the cobwebs. There are dreary curtains out of Edgar Allan Poe and dancing light towers appropriated from Dream Girls. The only suggestion of Desmond's former fame is a famous portrait of Ellen Terry that is supposed to represent the young, radiant Desmond. Like everything else in this musical, it is an insult to intelligence to borrow a famous portrait of another actress to do duty for the young Norma Desmond. It's another sorry specter in a hall of pale ghosts.


Sunset Boulevard, through February 21 at the Palace Theatre, 1501 Euclid Ave., 216-771-4444.

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