`Sunset Boulevard' Makes Grand Entree

SUNSET BOULEVARD Musical by Andrew LLoyd Webber. At the Shubert Theatre.

WHEN Andrew Lloyd Webber announced plans to make a musical out of Billy Wilder's 1950 film classic, ``Sunset Boulevard,'' people wondered how it would translate to the stage. Scenes like the famous opening, with a corpse lying face down in a pool, would be as hard to stage as a car chase.

But when you have a source this rich, it makes sense to adapt it faithfully. And Webber and his collaborators, Christopher Hampton and Don Black (book and lyrics), are helped by the technical wizardry of production designer John Napier, who developed some of the most elaborate sets ever seen.

Webber's musical, a revamped version of the production currently running in London (starring Patti LuPone), opened recently in Los Angeles, the first of his shows to bypass New York in its American premiere.

Glenn Close stars as Norma Desmond, and the actress triumphs over the formidable challenge of playing a role created by Gloria Swanson. Close gives an oversized performance, filled with the grand gesture that is perfectly suitable to a former silent-film actress who is now living in a fantasy world. But the actress also humanizes the character, making her delusion more touching and making the relationship between her and desperate screenwriter Joe Gillis more credible, if less Grand Guignol. Close, who is no stranger to musicals (``Rex'' and ``Barnum'') is also a powerful singer, delivering bravura versions of Webber's soaring melodies.

Webber's music permeates the show, creating a near-operatic effect, and the composer has not lost his gift for memorable melodies. If at times the music is reminiscent of ``Phantom of the Opera'' (and it has a leading character who has many similar characteristics), that does not lessen its impact. In ``With One Look'' and ``As If We Never Said Goodbye,'' both sung by Norma, he has created two new entries in his pantheon of theatrical anthems.

Relative unknown Alan Campbell (his biggest credits are TV's ``Jake and the Fatman'' and ``Three's a Crowd'') plays Joe Gillis, the cynical young screenwriter who is hired by Norma to rewrite the script for her comeback and who becomes her gigolo. He is surprisingly effective, confident both in his acting and singing, although he is a bit too young and callow to convey the cynical world-weariness essential to his character.

Director Trevor Nunn, who is by now no stranger to spectacle, has outdone himself, creating a fluidly cinematic staging that is wondrous to behold. For Norma's Gothic mansion, Napier has designed a large and elaborate set that, for all its size, floats around the stage as if by magic. He has also devised ingenious solutions to the technical obstacles. The entire production, from Anthony Powell's costumes to Andrew Bridge's lighting design, is spectacular.

``Sunset Boulevard,'' like most of Webber's creations, is more notable for its staging and theatricality than for its heart or intelligence, but also like his other works, it is certain to be a huge hit.

The engagement in Los Angeles is open-ended, and the show is scheduled to open on Broadway sometime next fall.

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