REMEMBER GLORIA SWANSON'S mad descent down the staircase, hissing rhapsodic, blade-like whispers about "the little people, out there in the dark"? Well, dammit, Andrew Lloyd Webber does. His take on Billy Wilder's classic, Sunset Boulevard, the story of faded silent movie star Norma Desmond and her ill-fated affair with cynical screenwriter Joe Gillis, is currently schmoozing those same little people with a musical production now glitzing up the Paramount.

Good-looking, well sung all the way around, and smoothly staged by Susan H. Schulman, the show is as diverting as a big, gaudy toy and just as quickly tiresome. Webber and his writers/lyricists, Don Black and Christopher Hampton, all but ignore the story's noir underpinnings and mostly gush at us, their florid, forgettable songs and expositional patter dismissing the film's grotesque excesses in favor of misplaced sentimentality. Max von Mayerling, Norma's ominous manservant and former Svengali, is reduced to clichés like, "I've seen so many idols fall/She's the greatest star of all." Allen Fitzpatrick gives booming, sincere voice to the character but can't transcend the shorthand that has turned Max into a love puppy.

Though Petula Clark looks great and is in strong voice as Norma, she still can't knock "As If We Never Said Goodbye," the requisite Big Song, out of the ballpark. There's no haunting desperation grounding her bravado during the song or, unfortunately, anywhere else in the show. Clark doesn't have the wily lost grandeur required to make us accept even a fleeting interest on Joe's part; she's too scrappy and common in her attempts to play Norma's grand manipulations.

The closest this production comes to taking off is during Norma's ode to silent film, "New Ways to Dream." With a shadowing Max behind her, Norma gets swept away during a private screening of her Joan of Arc, reenacting her portrayal as the celluloid light flickers on her sad face. It's a moment that hints at what the show should be doing, and an indication of the creators' failure that the evening never again plunges into that passionate dementia. Norma would've wanted more for us. THEATER

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