Preview: 'Sunset Boulevard' gets ready for close-up


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Liz Callaway was thrilled to finally have her Joe Gillis by her side, and Matthew Scott couldn't have been more delighted that the incarnation of Norma Desmond was eating her lunch in the seat next to his.

They were together at last after prepping for "Sunset Boulevard" on their own.

With the opening of the Pittsburgh CLO production less than a week away, the woman who would be faded film star Norma Desmond, a role that earned an Oscar nomination for Gloria Swanson and a Tony Award for Glenn Close, was bubbly and in her sparkly character shoes, kicking aside her usual sneakers to do what CLO does each summer: Get a mammoth, highly fraught musical on its feet in a matter of days.

'Sunset Boulevard'

Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Tuesday through next Sunday. 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $10-$65; pittsburghclo.org or 412-456-6666.

Tony nominee Ms. Callaway (for 1983's "Baby") had sung selections from the show for CLO in last year's Andrew Lloyd Webber revue, "Love Changes Everything," but now she gets to do showstoppers such as "If You Never Said Goodbye" in the context of the show. Getting ready for her close-up, as Norma might say, has been months in the process, but only days with fellow actors, turbans and gowns and the trappings of a CLO production.

Just one thing was still missing during rehearsal last week.

"We don't have a staircase," Ms. Callaway said, knowing she will still have to navigate one in heels and gowns. "I was in Florida waiting for a flight and there was a mall across from the Tampa airport. I didn't feel like shopping. I had my sunglasses and I just went, OK, and I practiced on the stairs in the mall. You have to do what you have to do."

For Mr. Scott, returning to CLO also is a return to the city of his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, and the hometown of his actress wife, Kirsten Bracken. They were about to be married when he worked for CLO last summer. "His anniversary is opening night, and he'll spend it kissing me," Ms. Callaway pointed out.

The co-stars were just getting to know each other last week, but were already bantering like buddies and discovering their characters over lunch.

Ms. Callaway noted that Norma and Joe never sing together. "We have singing scenes, but we don't have one moment where we sing at the same time," she said.

"We sing in the same song, but we exchange. No harmony," Mr. Scott said.

"Not a note, not one moment," she said. "We're actually going to do something in December and I hope we can put in a request that we do something together."

Their lack of musical harmony rings true in the emotional discord of the characters, they decided.

"They have different agendas," as Ms. Callaway put it. Norma is on an emotional roller coaster, latching onto a younger man and desperately hanging onto her youth as a silent film star while losing her grip on reality. World-weary Joe is a writer who may have a chance at love with a younger woman, but he's seduced by Norma's lavish attention and gifts.

The dynamic over lunch is quite different, as the co-stars discuss what brought them to the roles. Ms. Callaway got the offer last September, while vacationing in Stockholm. Mr. Scott came aboard much later.

"I saw opening night on Broadway; it was something I never saw myself in," Ms. Callaway said. "But now I love it, and sometimes it's something that's so unexpected that are the great opportunities. It's terrifying, but very exciting."

Mr. Scott was not familiar with the movie or the musical and hadn't expected this opportunity, because "Sunset Boulevard" is the kind of challenging show that doesn't come around often. On its lone run through Pittsburgh, the national tour of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Don Black musical noir, starring Petula Clark, came through the Benedum Center in 1998.

"That's why I pursued it, because this was a theater I knew and a place I've been before and I knew Barry [Ivan, the director] would be able to get it up in a short period of time, because that's what he does. He's a master of these huge epic things. Last time I was here I did 'Les Mis' [as Marius] with him, and we thought there's just no way he could get that show up and running with a week and a four-hour tech, and he did."

Plus, there was the opportunity to work with Ms. Callaway.

At one point, Mr. Scott told his co-star that perhaps she should close her ears while he gushed about her ability to bring the distinctive vocal talents of shows like "Baby" and the film "Anastasia" and then revert to Norma channeling her flirtatious, teenage self.

"After hearing that, I can't imagine how else you would do it. And of course she's got great depth and great range to her voice, but to hear that tone, it's pretty amazing," he said.

In their short bonding time, the actors have discussed their various projects surrounding "Sunset Boulevard" and the discipline it takes to move from show to show. "It's been a crazy couple of months," Mr. Scott said of his time leading up to "Sunset Boulevard," including D.C. runs of "First You Dream" at the Kennedy Center and, with his wife, Signature Theatre's "Sizzlin' Summer Cabaret." After Pittsburgh, they return to Philadelphia -- where Mr. Scott won a Barrymore Award for "The Light in the Piazza" -- to teach for The Broadway Dreams Foundation.

The day after "Sunset Boulevard closes," CLO's Norma moves on to New York City's Town Hall theater for the concert "Liz Callaway and Friends Sing Flaherty, Schwartz and Sondheim,"

"I have three guests," she said of Jason Danieley, Joshua Henry and Norm Lewis.

"None of them are me, by the way," her co-star said, laughing. "She hasn't decided yet if she's going to keep me around."

For now, the actors are clinging to the support of each other and their co-stars, including Amanda Rose, a newcomer to CLO in the role of Betty, and Walter Charles, the veteran actor playing Norma's loyal butler, Max.

"Today is the first time I got to do the scenes with Jeff [Howell] as Cecil B. DeMille, and it was so wonderful," Ms. Callaway said. "And to get to work with Matt, just a huge difference, and seeing the costumes and all the turbans, and they're fabulous. ... It's not going to be as hard as I thought becoming this other person."

theater

Sharon Eberson: seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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